FOR SHEER THEATRICALITY, the Dreary Saga of Rick Burt would be hard to top. It is a saga disguised as a typical Washington battle over Senate confirmation of a controversial nominee for high federal office, but it goes well beyond the typical. This is Washington drama on a lavish scale -- a tale that would suit that definitive Washington novel that seems never to get written.

On second thought perhaps a novelist would find this tale wanting. Though rich in ambition, intrigue, high policy disputes and political cunning, this story is short on sympathetic characters. An outsider would easily be forgiven for failing to find a hero here.

But even without a hero, this saga reveals a good deal about Washington these days -- about how nasty are the battles among our Republican rulers, about how these supposed friends are apparently paralyzed by profound differences over what to do about nuclear weapons.

On the level of symbolic politics, the fight over Richard Burt, an ambitious young official in the State Department, is a manifestation of that deep division. Burt is opposed, generally speaking, by Republicans who really believed the 1980 GOP platform, which called for American nuclear superiority and an "end the Carter coverup of Soviet violations of SALT I and SALT II." Many of Burt's oppponents are using the fight against him to try to advance that point of view.

The principal players in this saga include the following:

* Richard R. Burt, a driven 35-year-old who made a name for himself as the aggressive, hard-line national security correspondent of The New York Times during the Carter administration. Burt jumped from journalism to a job in Alexander M. Haig's State Department as director of the office of political-military affairs. Burt is a man who stirs the emotions of others. Even his friends -- who stick up for him -- call him arrogant; however, his friends seem heavily outnumbered by people who don't warm to him.

* Secretary of State George Shultz, who decided to put Burt in the new job Alexander M. Haig had picked for him, assistant secretary of state for European affairs. Shultz did this without knowing Burt personally, apparently in response to a plea from Haig. Willy- nilly, Shultz became Burt's patron and protector. How he likes this role is not known.

* Michael Pillsbury, the "national security adviser" to the Senate Steering Committee, an organization of conservative and ultraconservative senators. Pillsbury is a smart, shrewd and -- according to his enemies, also a considerable group -- bare-knuckled operator who blames Burt for having a hand in his unseemly ouster from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in April 1981. He had been the agency's temporary acting director. Pillsbury was one of a number of hardliners who had served on Reagan transition teams in the various national security agencies, but were never offered permanent jobs. He is now a key agitator in the block-Burt movement.

* David S. Sullivan, who like Pillsbury was fired out of ACDA early in 1981 (he had been its acting counselor) and now works for Sen. Steven D. Symms (R-Idaho). Sullivan was an analyst of Soviet strategic capabilities for the CIA, a job he lost in 1978 after leaking a secret report to Richard Perle, then assistant to Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) and now an assistant secretary of defense. Sullivan is also active in the block-Burt effort.

* Sens. Jesse Helms (N.C.), Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), Malcolm Wallop (Wyo.), Barry Goldwater (Ariz.), Symms and other Republicans who have lined up against Burt.

* A retinue of White House and State Department officials who are debating what to do about Burt and another controversial nominee, Robert T. Grey Jr., whom many of the same senators want to block as deputy director of ACDA. (Grey is a foreign service officer and protege, of Eugene V. Rostow, the Democrat Reagan picked to run ACDA. But that's another saga.)

Newspapers don't have room to print sagas, so this version is necessarily abbreviated. The plot line is relatively simple; it is the machinations that get complicated.

When Burt got his first job under Haig, as director of political-military affairs, Senate confirmation was not required. But his promotion to assistant secretary gave his many rivals and enemies on Capitol Hill a shot at him that they couldn't resist.

With Pillsbury apparently playing quarterback, the opponents mustered several lines of argument against Burt's confirmation. One was on policy: Burt, his critics said, was too soft on arms control and related issues. He was a captive of the foreign service bureaucracy and not a true Reaganaut. Pillsbury's differences with Burt went back to 1981 when both were still in the administration and Burt helped scuttle the Pillsbury-Sullivan proposal that the United States should accuse Moscow of violating the SALT treaties.

A second line of attack was that Burt compromised important secrets as a reporter. Helms, Goldwater and others hit this point the hardest. They point to a story by Burt in The Times of June 29, 1979, revealing the existence of a U.S. satellite code-named Chalet that could be reprogrammed from earth to pick up signals from Soviet rockets during test flights. This was a grave security breach, Burt's critics said.

(The merits of this charge are not easily weighed by laymen. Whatever its merits, it has amused senators and others who were promoters of the never-ratified SALT II treaty, who considered Burt a formidable adversary in his New York Times days. During 1978-80, Burt's stories -- including many leaked to him by allies of the right-wingers now attacking him -- often gave fits to SALT supporters.)

Another line of attack, remarkable for its sleaziness, involves Burt's private life. Some critics note Burt's personal relationship with a woman reporter for The New York Times, hinting that he leaked senstive information to her. Sen. Hatch made this charge openly in a letter to Burt a week ago Friday. "It would help (your chances for confirmation)," Hatch wrote to Burt, "if you could lay to rest the rumors about Judith Miller's articles on arms control appearing so soon after your own meetings with her, but these are less important to my colleagues and me than the substantive issues." How's that for an elegant formulation?

Burt's attempts to refute his critics have not gone well. On the matter of publishing classified secrets, he has actually written a letter to Hatch listing four occasions when, as a reporter, he persuaded The Times to suppress sensitive information. "I took steps to insure that considerations of national security were taken into account" by The Times, Burt wrote on Oct. 1.

As to his alleged softness on arms control and related issues, Burt asked to come before the Steering Committee on Dec. 3 to refute those charges. He met in a private session with nine senators and Powell Moore, the assistant secretary of state for congressional relations. In effect, this was a supplement to Burt's original confirmation hearing in the Foreign Relations Committee (where he easily won approval, with only Helms voting against him).

Apparently, Burt hoped to use the meeting to convince the senators that he was the victim of a staff vendetta led by Pillsbury and Sullivan. (Earlier, a senior State Department official who has good relations with the far right had advised Burt to go personally to Pillsbury to try to "bury the hatchet." Burt declined to follow this advice.)

During the meeting Hatch asked Burt a number of questions about the positions he had taken on issues before the administration. According to Pillsbury, Hatch kept his questions rather vague, using "standard entrapment techniques." In fact, Hatch had hard evidence of Burt's positions in the form of documents from inside the State Department leaked to the steering committee by sympathetic hardliw, the Dners, according to staff sources. In his replies to Hatch's questions, Burt flatly contradicted this documentary evidence, according to Pillsbury and other sources.

Burt was in Europe last week and could not be questioned about any of these matters. Until now he has sought to discourage all public airing of his troubles. After John Lofton, a tenacious conservative columnist, wrote critically of him, Burt angrily told Lofton he was just "a loser" whose side (the far right) had lost out in the Reagan administration, Lofton recalls.

Burt's critics accuse him of organizing threats aimed at shutting them up. An aide to one anti-Burt senator said he received a call from Mark Palmer, a foreign service officer who has worked with Burt in the State Department, recalling that Burt and the aide had enjoyed a special, confidential relationship in Burt's Times days, adding that Burt felt it would be harmful to all concerned if that relationship became known.

The aide took Palmer's call as a threat that Burt might accuse him of leaking classified documents to a reporter -- Burt. But Palmer says this account is "a distortion of what I said." Palmer said he expressed surprise that the aide would be working against Burt given their past friendly relations, but made no threat of any kind.

But wait -- what's really going on here? Do Burt's opponents really think the Reagan administration has to be cleansed of all officials who don't adhere to a purist right-wing line? Or are they really saying that no reporter who ever published a leak based on classified information can serve in government? (That might not be a bad rule.) Or are they using Burt's nomination as a whip to flail at the entire national security apparatus of the Reagan administration?

Not surprisingly, different critics answer these questions differently. Some consider Burt's '79 leak in the Times an unforgivable transgression -- Goldwater, for example. Others say candidly (if anonymously) that they are really trying to intimidate higher officials of the administration. "Yes, this really is a criticism of (Judge William) Clark and Shultz and Haig and (Defense Secretary Caspar) Weinberger," admitted one of the Senate aides most actively involved in the fight against Burt. "They don't understand what they're doing" on arms control issues.

Pillsbury acknowledges that there are multiple motives at work. One, he has said, was his and Sullivan's desire for revenge for losing their ACDA jobs, "no question about it." Another is the fact that Burt's past on the Times and his association with the Haig group in State that the right considered too soft made him vulnerable, so the Steering Committee group could use his confirmation to try to demonstrate its strength. A third motive was the desire to push the administration into a tougher posture on arms deployment and negotiations with the Soviets.

What next? Well, Burt won't get confirmed during this lame-duck session, so the White House will have to resubmit his nomination next year if it wants to fight for him. If there is another fight, it won't be easily won. Even Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), President Reagan's staunchest ally in the Senate, says he has "problems" with the Burt nomination.

In a spectacle like this one, the outcome may not be as important as the struggle. This struggle just confirms the depth of the division within the Reagan administration itself and between parts of the administration and parts of its constituency on the most fundamental national security issues.

Critics of Burt grant that he may eventually get confirmed, but say that even if he does, he'll be permanently weakened by this fight and will know that he is "under surveillance," as one critic put it. Even if they cannot control overall administration policy, this cabal on the far right -- "crazy anarchists," a source close to the Senate leadership calls them -- can demonstrate how effectively its agents are operating in every corner of the Reagan administration.

And therethe D is a cabal. It used to be called the Madison Group because of its regular meetings at the Madison Hotel. Now it meets at the Metropolitan Club -- it met there Friday for three hours -- but has no name, and keeps no formal records or papers. The group consists of congressional aides and private citizens as well as administration officials. If the White House wanted to overcome the influence of this group, it would have to fight it openly, but there is no sign it wants to do that. There are only signs of nastiness and of paralysis.