Call her the patron saint of lost causes, but for the legendary actress and activist Vanessa Redgrave, there are no lost causes. Being a "war child" who performed in plays at age 4 to collect money for those more vulnerable than herself and to give them hope was the beginning of her universe of passion and rebellion.
"It was a trial by fire," said the lanky, wiry and hauntingly beautiful actress, now 65, of her stage debut in wartime Britain.
In the long-ago production, she played a woman stranded on an island. The play opened with her reciting the following lines, written by a 7-year-old boy on whom she had a crush: "I have been shipwrecked and I am destitute of everything, but for . . ." Her character was then supposed to list all the things she still had and could be grateful for, but her memory always dried up before she finished.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Vanessa has bished it all, so let us start again," the prodigy playwright would announce to understanding relatives and neighbors.
The young cast charged each spectator a half-penny, collected in a box. The money was sent to the Merchant Navy seamen's fund, which supported sailors who crossed the Atlantic in convoys at great risk to bring in food and other supplies.
"We shared the ethics of the time, saying you never do something for yourself, but for others as well," said Redgrave, who was in Washington this week to speak on the issue that has engaged her since 1999: ending the conflict in Chechnya. "We were also spurred on to acting at a time when there was no TV, cinema or theater."
"Blessed or cursed, I was both. My conscience got awoken in the theater. The danger around our forces, the acts committed under Hitler's rule . . ." Her voice trails off and she sips coffee from a paper cup at the Wyndham Hotel.
"I suppose at one point helping Jews in wartime Europe could have been seen as a lost cause, but it wasn't," she said, looking around with piercing and anxious blue eyes. No rings or bracelets adorned her hands or wrists, but small pearl earrings framed her gaunt face.
She said art and activism are normally separate fields, but for her they came together during World War II, when she was just learning to read.
Asked if her activism honed her skill on the stage, Redgrave recalled the motto of the Globe, William Shakespeare's theater on the River Thames: Totus mundus agit histrionem," which she translated from Latin as "All the world moves the stage."
"Writing of the greatest value always values nature, the trials and tribulations of people, of yesterday and today, and we read them so we can sail across the oceans we have to traverse," she observed.
The character who has affected her most deeply is Prospero, the exiled duke of Milan in "The Tempest." "It is about refugees. The hatred that drives us and then the relinquishing of a decision for revenge, forgiveness that makes it possible for young people from different cultures whose parents were enemies to start life anew. This is what has meant most to me," she mused.
"It is about acquiring enormous power and coming through hatred. When Prospero relinquishes these powers, he gives us a glimpse of nuclear power. He does it for his daughter and the son of his enemy, who fall in love," she added. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, they don't die at the end, but emerge with hope.
She did not want to talk about war with Iraq, other than to say that society has to think about what to do concerning terrorism and its prevention. "There are those who raise their wand and unleash terrible destruction, and there are those who can create conditions for solace and peace, not only between individuals but between peoples," Redgrave said.
Speaking yesterday at the National Press Club, Redgrave said the war in Chechnya is pushing Russia away from becoming a true democracy and toward the excesses of a nationalist police state.
She has taken up the defense of Akhmed Zakayev, a fugitive Chechen leader and former actor. He served as a rebel field commander but became an envoy. Russia wants to try him on charges of terrorism, saying he was linked to the hostage crisis at a Moscow theater in October.
Acting on a Russian warrant, British authorities arrested Zakayev at London's Heathrow Airport earlier this month when he arrived there with Redgrave. Redgrave put up 50,000 pounds to bail him out pending a hearing at Bow Street magistrates' court on Jan. 9 that is to consider whether he will be sent to Russia.
Though Redgrave's role in left-wing politics and her defense of controversial parties in Ireland, the Middle East and Vietnam has exposed her to bitter criticism, she remains sanguine about her past. "Human beings and human rights must supersede party politics, that being the only consensus that is worthwhile and creative. Whoever works for them, I would work with," she said.
Asked if she had any regrets about the people or issues she has championed, she shrugged. "Fundamentally, no. I supported Sinn Fein as a political arm of the IRA," Redgrave said, referring to the Irish Republican Army. "I never supported terrorism. I always knew what terrorism meant. I was young and some people accused me of certain things because they wanted to blacken my name just to prevent me from being an advocate of repressed people."
Redgrave said she will always have to act, to support herself and her causes. She wants to concentrate her last years on education and children. She smiles when she mentions a kindergarten she founded for underprivileged children in 1973 and the letters she gets from grown-ups who once attended it.
"One brief moment of real, real kindness ensures they won't get completely destroyed, no matter what happens to them," she said.