The theater is as important as the church was in the Middle Ages. It is a factory of thought, a prompter of conscience and elucidator of conduct, an armory against despair and dullness, and a temple of the ascent of man.-- GEORGE BERNARD SHAW

WHEN HE died in 1950, G.B. Shaw was less popular than he had ever W been. The obituaries and appreciations were predictably laudatory but several had a grudging tone. Sir Harold Nicolson was part of a committee investigating the idea of opening Shaw's house as a national shrine; he wrote that the house was "dreadful and not really livable," and while he supposed that "morally" the country should accept the house, he doubted Shaw would be remembered in the year 2000.

As Ira Gershwin would say: Who's got the last laugh now?

Shaw is not, as Nicolson anticipated, mouldering in libraries or remembered only by genteel literary societies; he is, rather, as popular as ever. It is a renewal, rather than a revival, of interest, because Shaw has been consistently (sometimes dutifully) performed since the early part of the century. What seems to characterize the renewal more than numbers is affection, as though today's audiences are tuning in to Shaw's message, and, indeed, finding in it a correlation to the issues of our own time.

In Washington, "Major Barbara" is now playing at Arena Stage -- its third production there since 1960. And as part of the celebrations marking Shaw's 125th birthday year, there have been, independently within the last month, a colloquium and dinner-dance, a one-man show by the Irish actor Donal Donelly, and another on public television.

New York has a successful production of "Misalliance" and a less successful "Candida" starring Joanne Woodward, as well as the indomitable "My Fair Lady," the sugarplum version of Shaw's "Pygmalion." In England, the executors of Shaw's estate, the Society of Authors, get five to six requests a week to produce or reprint his work, and according to Roma Woodnutt, one of the three people who handle Shaviana, "there is a Shaw play, done either professionally or by amateurs, running in this country almost constantly."

The oftener my plays are performed the more popular they become, acquiring Shavian congregations which can always be relied on. -- G.B. SHAW THREE-VOLUME edition of Shaw's collected works as a music critic has recently A been reissued in Britain (it costs about $85) and will be published here before Christmas. A paperback edition of four of his plays has recently been issued in Russian -- 500,000 were reportedly printed. The Modern Language Association schedules a special session for Shaw specialists at its biennial convention, and the Shaw Review, edited by Shaw expert Stanley Weintraub at Pennsylvania State University, has changed after 25 years from a magazine to an annual hardback volume containing such articles as "The Lord's Prayer and Major Barbara" and "How Shaw Used Dickens in His Work." And books about him "are so numerous that even dedicated Shavians can't find time for them all," Weintraub said.

Weintraub used to take an informal survey of the plays listed in The New York Times' annual rundown of summer theaters, and found an average of 20 Shaw plays done every summer in the area surrounding New York City alone. "What counts is the world of commerce," he said. "The people who sell tickets don't do him for the same reasons as pious academics."

"A few years ago I taught a graduate seminar on Shaw that met on Saturday mornings," said Dr. Bob Everding of the University of Houston. "I thought I would get 20 students. Instead I got 40." Shortly afterward, Everding started The Houston Shaw Festival at the school's Clear Lake City campus, a community theater that does two Shaw plays in repertory each summer. The festival has been so successful that it is looking into going professional.

Now Shaw is still not on the popularity level of, say, Woody Allen, but the royalties he is still earning (even though many of his early plays are no longer under copyright) 31 years after his death are impressive. (His royalties go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the British Museum and the National Gallery in Ireland.) What's more impressive is that he seems to be listened to. What could account for it?

"I think there are two elements," said Everding. "The comedy, of course. People will laugh at something that's really funny forever. Secondly, he's so doggone relevant."

Nowadays we do not seem to know that there is any other test of conduct except morality; and the result is that the young had better have their souls awakened by disgrace, capture by the police, and a month's hard labor, than drift from their cradles to their graves doing what other people do for no other reason than that other people do it, and knowing nothing of good and evil, of courage and cowardice, or indeed anything but how to keep hunger and concupiscence and fashionable dressing within the bounds of good taste except when their excesses can be concealed. Is it any wonder that I am driven to offer to young people in our suburbs the desperate advice: Do something that will get you into trouble? . . . I hate to see dead people walking about; it's unnatural. And our respectable middle class people are all as dead as mutton.-- FROM THE PREFACE TO "FANNY'S FIRST PLAY," FIRST PERFORMED IN 1911. SS HAW WAS an early supporter of suffrage for women, and many of his heroines, S such as Major Barbara or Lina in "Misalliance," are the sort of independent, smart, thoughtful, forthright person who is an even more accessible role model today than when he created them. His views on poverty were so prescient that -- as one example -- columnist Jimmy Breslin quoted him a few years ago in a column about the South Bronx. Even his stance as an anti-vivisectionist (he was a vegetarian and a teetotaler as well) seems tailor-made for the current local debate over the monkeys recently "liberated" from a private laboratory.

He would have been a worthy debater against the Moral Majority, being a Christian who was critical of the trappings of the organized church. "Mrs. Warren's Profession," his third play, was banned from the English stage for years because it espoused the point of view that ". . . prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together."

Weintraub thinks Shaw's reputation suffered from his longevity; at 94, he had been around so long that interest in him took an inevitable downturn, and his centennial celebration came too soon after his death to have allowed time for a regeneration of appreciation.

The proliferation of roles suited for actors in their middle-aged prime is one good reason why theater producers find Shaw plays attractive vehicles for stars. Some of his plays were ahead of their time, both politically and in terms of the theatrical expertise of the earlier part of the century. Several, such as "The Philanderer," that flopped when first presented, have been successes in recent years, thanks to creative directing and producing.

But most important, his characters are people of wit, depth and texture who speak beautifully; the drama is a debate of human emotions set in the context of moral, spiritual or political issues; the words are provocative. He dishes out ideas at a rate that can be both dizzying and exciting to modern, television-blanched audiences, but -- if the performance does him justice -- usually snares them with the irresistible lure of original thought.

Consider, for instance:

The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is. From "Man and Superman"

What is virtue but the Trade Unionism of the married? From "Man and Superman"

We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it. From "Candida"

The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty. From "Major Barbara"

Postscript: Not long ago Weintraub got a letter from a former graduate student, informing him that she was living with a law student and that they had no plans to get married.

In response he sent her a copy of the play "Getting Married," in which Shaw discusses all the reasons not to get married and then marries off the young protagonists. "I don't know if the play had anything to do with it," he said. "But my former student and her friend got married not long after."