"When I dream," says Melina Mercouri, the Grecian dream, "I am an artist. When I awake I am a politician." With that self-definition, plus a quick, hale laugh, Mercouri loosens up a Washington audience of 300 that has come to be stirred by all things Greek and all things beautiful. To Mercouri's eye and heart, they are the same.

As the minister of culture for the Papandreou government, Mercouri is Greece's offering to those who are insatiable for the classical heritage and its preservation. She has been having a go at culture since 1981 when she left the Greek Parliament after four years of representing a working-class district in the port city of Piraeus.

Athenian politics is as natural to Mercouri as the honey in baklava: her grandfather Spiro was the mayor of Athens for 30 years. Mercouri wrote that he was "scrupulously honest" and "owned nothing" except his granddaughter's heart: "I was his favorite and to be the favorite of Athen's favorite son was paradise."

In Washington it was something of the paradisaical that Mercouri had on her mind: the sharing of Greek culture with the United States. A lecture series at the Smithsonian is to be part of it, as well as an exchange program in 1986 between Greek and American artists. Earlier this year the European Economic Community chose Athens as the first city to be honored in a rotating "cultural capital of Europe" program.

It was Greeks like Mercouri whom Aristotle had in mind when he wrote in the "Nicomachean Ethics" that "people of superior refinement and of active disposition identify happiness with honor; for this is, roughly speaking, the end of the political life." Mercouri, a jump ahead of the philosophers, has made that the end of her artistic life. Americans know her as the actress who took their hearts in the 1960s film, "Never On Sunday." It became a Broadway musical, "Ilya Darling," and for the year that it ran Mercouri was a Broadway institution. Walter Kerr reviewed the event, saying "Melina is a creature you would be happy to take home to mother, if mother was out."

For many Americans, or at least those who recognize tidal passion when they see it, the most unforgettable virtue of Mercouri came when the curtain on "Ilya Darling" would close and she would speak to the audience: The Greece in the musical -- free, lively, affirming -- does not exist in the Greece of lying and torturing colonels at home. They controlled the country from 1967 to 1974. The right-wing junta took away Mercouri's citizenship. That led to the actress' most memorable line, on stage or off: "I was born Greek and will die Greek."

No doubts of that occurred when Mercouri rested for a few moments in a quiet place the other evening. She spoke of the British looting the Acropolis in 1806 when Lord Elgin, the queen's ambassador, went to the then-ruling Turkish sultan. Could Britain take the frieze from the Parthenon and the statuary from the Erechtheum? Haul them away, said the sultan, closing his palm. The Thatcher government today, with the treasures still in a London museum, won't return them. Mercouri, justifiably riled, runs an emotional hand through her hair and jumps up from the sofa to exclaim, "They are ours, and we will bring them home."

Mercouri's fire matches the scarlet dress she is wearing. Earlier in the day, when defining culture as "roughly anything we do and monkeys don't," she worried about the corrosions that are eating into Greek life as much as the air pollution damaging the ancient buildings. "When our blue-jeaned youth dance to rock-and-roll, when they park their Harley Davidson motorcycles before the cinema playing 'Ghostbusters' and they refresh themselves with Pepsis and Cokes while waiting for their friends to finish eating their Big Macs, I must wonder what links our youth retain with Greek identity."

Like bouzouki music, that rings with sharp sounds, Mercouri is as candid today with her views on culture as she was 15 years ago on the rise of militarism. She wrote in her 1970 autobiography, "I Was Born Greek," that paying taxes for war or war preparation "is immoral. When you know that most of the money of a national budget goes to the manufacture of deadly weapons, to building and maintaining military bases all over the globe, to paying agents to muck around in other countries, to prop up unsavory regimes -- when you know all this, and help pay for it with your taxes, then you're not being a decent citizen. . . . The quickest way to get disarmament is if John and Jean and Ivan refuse to pay one penny's tax toward the purchase of bombs and missiles."

When the Elgin marbles are returned to Greece and the last Big Mac is eaten, a new job should be created for Mercouri -- the minister of peace. Few women in international politics have stronger ideas or energies on how to create it. "Mercouri is Greece's offering to those who are insatiable for the classical heritage and its preservation."