The theatrical legend of "the show must go on" became fact last night. With the curtain set to go up just as war began in Baghdad, many Washington theater managers decided to proceed.

At Woolly Mammoth, one patron called to ask whether she could switch her tickets to another night. "Come to the theater, it's exactly what you need tonight," Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz told her.

When an event like the Persian Gulf war happens, "you get a sense of the gravity of the situation," Shalwitz said. "It raises questions about the nature of what you're doing." When he got the news, he said, he asked himself, "How does it relate to theater? Is theater part of what we need to deal with this war, or do we just want to shut our doors?"

At the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, house manager Bob Ramsey made an announcement about the war with Iraq before the curtain went up on "Othello." "We considered not playing, but the choice was up to our audience, and our audience arrived," Artistic Director Michael Kahn said.

The audience for Arena Stage's "From the Mississippi Delta" seemed already aware of the news, and no announcement was made. Doug Wager, Arena artistic director, said, "Quite frankly the thought never occurred to me to go over to the theater and get up and make an announcement."

Woolly Mammoth's Shalwitz said theater officials wondered if the audience wanted to see the president's 9 p.m. speech. "We wondered if we should set up a TV in the lobby -- but, of course, we don't have a TV."

Many in the audience at the Studio Theatre's Final Scenes presentations were young -- "maybe 8 or 9 during Vietnam," said Artistic Director Joy Zinoman. "They have a sense {the Persian Gulf war} is not real. It's this very particular kind of American insularity."

For Arena's Wager there was theater in the buildup toward last night's strike against Iraq. He described watching Peter Jennings walk across a television map of Iraq the night before: "It was like watching the Chorus in 'Henry V' -- as if it were going to be actors going to war and not real people."