APPLAUSE IS OWED to the trustees of Amherst College, who have changed their minds on the subject of the Folger Theatre. Their second thoughts are more generous and better than their original decision to close it. Applause goes to the private group organized to support it, led by Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Particularly long and loud applause goes to the anonymous donor who has pledged $100,000, and to R. Robert Linowes and his fund-raising committee now undertaking the hard work of making the theater financially independent of the college and the Folger Shakespeare Library. The library's director, Werner Gundersheimer, celebrated this reversal as a victory for the library and the theater alike.

This fine repertory theater has been saved -- at least for the next two years -- by its audience. It was their reaction that induced the trustees to reconsider. Whether it flourishes longer will depend upon the success that Mr. Linowes and his colleagues meet.

Two different approaches to Shakespeare have been competing at the Folger. One was the path that leads through the library -- the processes of textual editing and analysis, literary criticism and historical study. The other approach, of course, is through the tage itself, where actors present the plays to audiences as they have done for four centuries. Each side of Shakespeare needs the other. The original decision to close the theater seemed to indicate that, in this prosperous city, there were inadequate resources to support both -- and that Shakespeare scholarship could proceed adequately in the absence of actors' voices and the audience's response to them. Those are pretty dubious propositions. The trustees of the library have done a lot for the theater, for which this city has reason to be grateful. But the theater, and its friends who are coming to its rescue, are doing a lot for the library and the quality of the intellectual work that goes on there.

Washington is a city that has not had, in the past, a philanthropic tradition as strongly developed as its prosperity might justify. The announcement of the theater's closing, in January, seemed to be further evidence of this civic failure. But that judgment clearly needs to be amended. The vigorous and well-organized campaign to save and sustain the theater suggests that the definition of civic responsibility here is changing, and for the better.