A play is no more than a succession of moments; they can't be held on to, put on a shelf, pasted in a scrapbook. But 40 years of moments can add up to something much like life itself.

I REALIZE THAT MATHEMATICS DOESN'T HAVE A LOT TO do with theater, so I'm not sure what provoked me recently to take pencil in hand and calculate the hours I've spent at Arena Stage.

It could be because Arena is about to celebrate its 40th birthday and birthdays always get me thinking about time. Ever since I came to Washington in the mid-1960s, the institution has mattered to me. I've written tens of thousands of words about the plays I've seen there and the people who put them together. Maybe I was just looking for another yardstick, another measure of its importance.

I figured it this way: On average, I've been going to Arena Stage 10 times a year. Ten times three (number of hours per play) times 24 (number of years I've been going) equals 720 hours. That's 90 workdays, or a full month round-the-clock. A lot of time to spend in one spot, watching.

But I go back willingly, drawn to its possibilities. And since plays have told me much of what I know about life, I conclude that Arena has told me a great deal.

I remember gathering with some acquaintances in the parking lot in the spring of 1976 after a production of "Death of a Salesman." Robert Prosky, still years away from movie and television stardom, was playing Willy Loman, and the performance had left all of us pensive.

"That was my father too," muttered one of my friends.

"He's just like my Uncle Jack," said another.

I couldn't help adding that Willy Loman reminded me a lot of my stepfather.

The fourth member of our group was silent for a while. Then, in all seriousness, he said, "Willy Loman, that's my wife!"

Arena has always struck me as that kind of theater. You take it personally.

It was already well established when I got to know it -- just out of the Peace Corps and craving the amenities of the big city. I look at pictures of Arena in its early days and try to imagine what it was like back then. One of my favorites shows a young Zelda Fichandler beaming while a customer -- presumably, the first -- purchases a ticket at the box office of what only months before had been a seedy burlesque house on New York Avenue. Ed Mangum, the George Washington University professor who co-founded the theater with Zelda, is smiling. Everyone's smiling. It's got to be a publicity photo.

Taken on August 16, 1950, it certainly speaks of another world, as do the prices posted above the cashier ($1.90 evenings, $1.50 matinees). An adventure is clearly about to unfold. Any reservations about the future have been banished, if only for the click of a shutter.

In faraway Texas, Nina Vance and Margo Jones were undertaking similar experiments in decentralizing the American theater, which at the time began and ended with Broadway. The movement would come to be known as regional theater. Then, because that term somehow smacked of the sticks, the more dignified "resident theater" edged it aside.

In that hot August of 1950, however, the notion was still the sort that occurs mainly to the young, who cannot imagine the travails ahead or, if they can, do not doubt that they have the energy to overcome them.

From all evidence, Arena was Arena from the start. It didn't switch horses mid-stream, it just shed a few buildings along the way. The mixture of classics, contemporary plays and the occasional new work hasn't changed. Through the hits as well as the flops, it has held true to course.

However, the company had to put on 17 plays to get through that first season. The audience was not big. To keep up with the rent, Arena had to keep coming up with new attractions. The 17th production, "The Importance of Being Earnest," ran an unprecedented six weeks. Bingo! The jackpot. A sigh of relief.

FORTY SUMMERS LATER, IT IS STILL SWELTERING OUTSIDE Fichandler's office, but the air conditioning works better now. She leafs through a stack of old photographs and reflects:

"I look at this very young, expectant girl, standing in the box office, and I know who she is. I remember her. I remember what she felt like. But it seems like 500 years ago. Most people say of the past, 'It seems like only yesterday.' But I get the feeling of falling into a vast, deep chasm of time, so far away it should have a geological name.

"We'd raised $15,000 from the community and gutted this building, the Hippodrome. We hired a contractor to put in the concrete bleachers for the 247 seats. The offices and dressing rooms were under the larger bleachers. But the contractor drank and he installed the beams too low, so whenever I stood up from my desk, I invariably bumped my head.

"I've always had a lot of anxiety and I can be a fairly neurotic lady. But I've never operated on those emotions. I think the young girl looks absolutely terrific in this picture -- very optimistic, radiant, getting her job done. I remember that dress well. Purple and white. It had buttons down the front. The buttons kept falling off."

THE HIPPODROME AND THE OLD VAT, WHICH WAS WHAT Arena called its subsequent home in the Heurich brewery, are but names to me. Dynamite has long since brought down the brewery, and the site has been absorbed by the maze of roadways feeding into the bowels of the Kennedy Center. The Arena I've known is the low-slung cube at Sixth and M Streets SW, into which the company moved in 1961. (The adjoining Kreeger Theater was added a decade later.)

Apparently, the contractor who poured the concrete for the bleachers got it right this time. Zelda's husband, Tom Fichandler, had left his post as a government economist by then and was keeping tabs on the theater's architectural and administrative destiny. While Laurence Olivier expressed reservations ("I wouldn't know where to put my back," he said, eyeing the four-sided stage skeptically), Charles Laughton was of a different mind.

In Washington to film "Advise and Consent," the rotund actor liked to spend his off-camera time in the unfinished theater, watching it go up, breathing in its promise. Before any seats had been bolted in place, before any lights had been hung, before any costumes had been sewn, he spoke the first words from the stage -- the prologue from Shakespeare's "Henry V":

. . . Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth;

For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times . . .

The speech, which calls upon the spectators to collaborate with the actors in the reenactments to come, is thrillingly apt. Arena has always postulated its work on the intelligence of its audience, the vivacity of its imagination, its craving for truth and order.

It was never a haunt for the tired businessman, and for a period in the 1970s, it stood accused of having little sense of humor. (That's what comes, I suppose, from staging Brecht.) Until director Douglas Wager, Fichandler's recently named successor to the throne, unveiled his remarkable gift for orchestrating 1930s farces and vintage Marx Brothers musicals, Arena wasn't exactly what you'd call a lot of fun.

And yet Fichandler once admitted in all sincerity that her secret ambition was to dance in the back line of the chorus. Not up front, where the eyes would be upon her and she would have the onerous responsibility of getting the steps right, but in the back, where the pressure was off and she could tap away blithely to her heart's content. I don't think that's just whimsy. Fichandler had to learn how to relax. And Arena had to learn along with her.

The most persistent complaint, however, holds that the theater is prodigal with its resources, that the means overwhelm the ends. When, in 1982, it staged "K2," a play about two adventurers stranded on a ledge near the top of the world's second highest peak, designer Ming Cho Lee brought the mountain to the Kreeger, or at least a forbidding wall of glistening ice. Actor Stephen McHattie, kicking the razor-sharp crampons on his shoes hard into the vertical surface, ascended it inch by painful inch. You forgot you were in a theater and shivered.

For a play called "The Foursome," which depicts the sorry mating games of two lower-class British lads and their birds who take to the beach for a day, the technical staff filled the Arena with 20 tons of sand. Two seasons ago, a waving field of knee-high grass served as "The Cherry Orchard" in a radical staging of Chekhov's classic.

Few enterprises have been more ambitious, though, than "The Great White Hope," a bruising sprawl of a play by Howard Sackler that vaulted Arena to national prominence in 1967. In every respect, it was a titanic undertaking: 68 actors, 227 costumes, 11 scene changes. Opening night ran until quarter to midnight. Playing Jack Jefferson, boxing champion at a time in history when America preferred its champions to be white, James Earl Jones delivered a heart-stopping performance.

Elsewhere, the commercial theater was about to begin its great shrinking act. The small-cast, one-set play would become the norm. Experimental groups, which couldn't afford scenery, cited the lack of it as a badge of honor. By comparison, Arena has been prodigal. Royal characters are dressed royally, and the lower depths are depicted in epic squalor. Spectacle, after all, is one of the theater's legitimate seductions. We like to be told, "You won't believe your eyes."

I've often blinked at Arena.

And it hasn't all been lavishness. I recall being entranced by a pair of lips, nothing more, nattering away in the blackness. That's all you saw in the 1973 production of Samuel Beckett's "Not I." Ruby red lips (they belonged to Jessica Tandy), trying to hold the darkness at bay with words, frightened words falling all over one another. Then, the lips just seemed to float away, as if borne upward on a spiraling wind. I was later shown the black box in which Tandy was seated and which stagehands, dressed in black, rolled off-stage at the end, producing the illusion that so amazed me.

But the effect was too powerful to be explained away. I see it still.

FICHANDLER EXAMINES A PHOTOGRAPH OF JAMES Earl Jones -- young, unlined, still on this side of fame.

"The Great White Hope" looms before him, a challenge.

"I don't know how I knew him, except that he was the first actor I thought of for the part. I scheduled a meeting with him in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel for 7. And he didn't come and he didn't come. But I didn't leave. I just sat there, waiting for Jimmy, until he finally showed up an hour and a half later, because I sensed he was the one to play this role. He lost weight, went into training, took up boxing. And he proved to be incredible. More than anything, I suppose, that show gave Arena a national reputation, although the reviews were not so great here. The consensus was that it was too long. It was, but it was also wonderful.

"They shortened it for Broadway and it got different. When it was long, it was a play about a relationship that didn't flourish because a man wasn't allowed to flourish. Shortened, it became a melodrama about boxing. Some plays have to be long."

FROM THE VERY FIRST SEASON, ACTORS GRAVITATED TO Arena. The opportunity to work steadily in a variety of roles, to stretch, was the lure, and it was a strong one. In the early years, George Grizzard, Frances Sternhagen, Harve Presnell, Lester Rawlins, Gerald Hiken -- all of whom would later make their marks in New York -- were regulars in the company.

By the 1970s, a new generation had taken over: Dianne Wiest, fragile and luminous and dusted lightly with neuroticism; Max Wright, eccentricity itself, shooting off steam like a demented teakettle; Jane Alexander, her face perpetually tear-stained, or so it seemed to me, but bravely facing up to consequences nonetheless; Ned Beatty, who had the knack of expressing what was uncommon about the common man; and, of course, Robert Prosky, who already looked 50 when he was barely 30, which opened up a huge range of character parts to him.

Fichandler likes to describe them, and how many others, as "iron filings, hanging out there, waiting for a magnet." Arena drew them in. Then they moved on -- to movies, television or the New York stage -- and some became stars.

We didn't think of them that way while they were here. Stars are prized for their constancy -- the immediately identifiable persona they take with them from picture to play. Arena, instead, asks us to delight in the actor's mutability. It's a given that Stanley Anderson in "Enrico IV" will not remotely resemble Stanley Anderson in "Buried Child," who will bear no relation, in turn, to Stanley Anderson in "A Walk in the Woods." Richard Bauer has shown himself to be a man of a thousand bodies, all seemingly modeled after punctuation marks -- now a comma, now a question mark, now a pair of parentheses and, when he's truly bedeviled, an ampersand.

One reason the Marx Brothers musicals ("The Cocoanuts," "Animal Crackers") played so zippily was the priggish hauteur with which Halo Wines reinvented the Margaret Dumont characters. The same Halo Wines, who was so plain, so matter-of-fact, so quietly determined to commit suicide in " 'night, Mother."

It's not a matter of disguise, but of mind asserting it- self over matter, of mind remaking matter. Scary. Mystifying. Glorious.

THE PHOTO OF ROBERT PROSKY -- FOLKSY AND JOVIAL -- WAS taken during the 1980 production of "You Can't Take It With You," which Arena also performed in Hong Kong.

"I take enormous pride in Bob. He came here when he was 29 to play the sheriff in 'The Front Page,' " Fichandler says. "He was a talented summer stock actor, but you sensed there was something else there -- the ability to react to imaginary stimuli as if they are real, which is what acting is all about. So many actors are talking heads; they recite. Or else they repeat habits of behavior given to them by a director.

"The talented ones live in a situation and pass it through their bodies. They show you what they're doing or what they're hiding, which people rarely ever do in real life. That's why they're so interesting. You learn something by watching them.

"I knew Bob was going to be a major actor. But I think a significant part of his story is the personal story. He was slow to grow as a human being. He put down roots in Washington, had a wife, raised kids and led the life of a man in a community. His work at Arena was cumulative. It evolved over time. I think if it had been disrupted, he never would have acquired the energy and the power he has now. He's gone on to enormous success. I just wish he'd act on the stage more."

IN TEMPERAMENT, FICHANDLER CAN SOMETIMES SEEM more Slavic than American. She is passionate, introspective and given to bouts of pessimism -- qualities that once earned her the nickname "The Dark Lady of Arena." As a graduate student at George Washington University, she studied the Russian language and literature. Is it any surprise that her theater would regularly look to the Eastern Bloc countries for plays and directors -- parting the Iron Curtain for American audiences at a time when it still constituted a formidable barrier?

From Romania came directors Liviu Ciulei and Lucian

Pintilie.

From Hungary: "Catsplay" and "The Tot Family."

From Poland: "Enchanted Night," "The Police" and

"Emigres."

From the Soviet Union: "Duck Hunting," "The Ascent of Mount Fuji," Chekhov on a regular basis and the hallucinatory 1987 production of "Crime and Punishment," directed by Yuri Lyubimov, then one of the Soviet Union's most celebrated

exiles.

The plays showed us another world in which people coped with repression and betrayal, survived at a steep moral price and occasionally went mad. The directors showed us how artists can sometimes get away with murder.

The courtly Ciulei was clearly on a tight governmental tether when he came to Arena in 1974 to stage "Leonce and Lena." What he allowed himself to say to the press then -- and thereafter -- was guarded. Pintilie, his theatrical disciple, was no less wary years later. Had they condemned the brutality of dictatorships, decried the alienation of the people or excoriated the greed and hypocrisy of their political leadership, the tether would have been swiftly retracted.

So, instead, they dropped their bombshells in boldly unconventional productions of "Tartuffe," "The Wild Duck" and "Hamlet." If anyone objected, they were merely staging classics sanctioned by time. In halting English, Ciulei dismissed "Leonce and Lena," perhaps the most playfully subversive work I've seen at Arena, as "a collage of impressions about life and the world." But what an explosion of theatricality and defiance ensued!

Both "Catsplay" and "The Tot Family" received their American premieres at Arena. Although widely recognized in Hungary, their author, Istvan Orkeny, was unknown in the United States. So I telephoned him in Budapest for an interview. It was 1977 and evident from his delicate responses that the line was tapped. He stoutly denied there was any such thing as censorship in his land.

Then, with a craftiness worthy of his plays, he added, "When you say freedom and I say freedom, you must realize the two terms are not synonymous. For you, freedom is a constant. For us freedom is a phenomenon in motion. It has a yesterday and a tomorrow. Yesterday was different from today and tomorrow will be different from today."

What struck me then as double talk was really prophecy.

But then hasn't Arena consistently tried to plug its work into larger social and political currents? It surely wasn't coincidence that Fichandler staged Joan Littlewood's World War I music hall extravaganza "Oh What a Lovely War" in the early days of the Vietnam conflict. Or that she chose to revive "The Crucible," Arthur Miller's drama about the Salem witchcraft trials, when hysteria about AIDS was raging.

Even Lyubimov -- whose towering creativity bordered on tyrannical perfectionism -- found a congenial home at Arena. Attuned to the Russian way of working, Fichandler provided him with everything he demanded: an unprecedented seven-week rehearsal period, a full technical staff on tap from the first day. "We gave him things we've never given ourselves or anyone else," she says.

Lyubimov was happy and productive nowhere else in America.

In 1973, ARENA BECAME THE FIRST THEATER SELECTED BY the State Department to tour the Soviet Union. Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's "Inherit the Wind" made up the bill.

"We played in the small theater at the Moscow Art Theatre," says Fichandler. "You can see four tiers of audience, standing on their feet applauding the cast of 'Inherit the Wind.' We're all applauding back. I recognize Max Wright from the back. How I miss him! The tour was a resounding success, and very much a homecoming for us. I think Moscow is a home for every actor because of the work that Stanislavsky pioneered there. I actually sat in the chair he directed from. They have a wonderful tradition at the Moscow Art Theatre. Every day, they put a fresh rose on the director's table.

"People lined up for hours to get tickets to the shows. We added a couple of performances just so members of the Moscow theater community could come. When we gave a pair of tickets to our driver, he said, 'Oh, no, these are too wonderful for me. Allow me to give them to my son for a wedding present instead.' "

WHAT DOES IT ADD UP TO -- THE 720 HOURS OF SHAKE- speare, Chekhov, Wilson, Moliere, Miller, Shaw, Pinter, Fugard and, yes, Alexander Buzo, the Australian playwright who came and went in 1973 with a negligible drama called "Tom"? Has anything really been learned?

There are those who would say no. A hypochondriac watching "The Imaginary Invalid" laughs just as heartily as the next man, then goes home and takes his temperature. The example of Macbeth's raging ambition is unlikely to curb ours. The theater describes behavior, it doesn't change it.

On the other hand, most of us dwell in the warm, cozy precincts of life, keeping ourselves and our emotions more or less in control. The theater takes us to life's outer edges. By embracing characters in crisis, it shows us what we could be and how we might react in other circumstances. If we come away with no more than a renewed awareness of the inexhaustible variety of the species, something has been learned. Zealotry, which thrives on strict and narrow definitions of humanity, is momentarily dismantled.

Good acting is rooted in a similar, liberating truth: Every emotion contains and is heightened by its opposite. There is baseness in nobility, spite in generosity, foolishness in dignity. When an actor captures both components simultaneously, we have an impression of extraordinary vividness. The performance that hits us in the gut, I suspect, is the one that makes us cognizant of the polar opposites within ourselves.

"I don't know whether to laugh or to cry," we say, and everyone understands. But the theater reminds us that it is equally valid to say, "I don't know whether to love or to hate," or "I don't know whether to pity or to scorn."

"Let's go," announce the tramps at the end of "Waiting for Godot," which Arena mounted brilliantly in 1976. And there they stand, rooted to the spot.

There is one other lesson -- a lesson that all theater companies impart, knowingly or not, but which Arena, being older, has imparted more often than most. A play is no more than a succession of moments. It dwells uniquely in the present. It cannot be held on to, put up on a shelf, pasted in a scrapbook. Even as it is coming into being, it is passing out of existence. Like life itself.

Arena is 40, but that's the institution we're talking about. What we see on its stages simply is. "I LOOK BACK TO THOSE EARLY SEASONS, AND WHAT WE DID then doesn't seem any different to me from what we're doing now," says Fichandler, who will step down as Arena's leader next June. "Oh, it's gotten better. By that, I mean the work is more steady. You can count on it more. But, basically, it's the same. I haven't changed my ideas about it. I wonder. Maybe we did it all that first year."

David Richards, for two decades a critic for the Washington Star and The Washington Post, will begin covering theater for the New York Times this fall.