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David Edgar's powerful mix of politics, drama

David Edgar has not let success stand in his way. One of Britain's leading contemporary playwrights and the author of the phenomenally popular stage adaptation of Charles Dickens's ''Nicholas Nickleby, '' David Edgar has remained stubbornly loyal to his original vision - a relentlessly political perspective that could easily be labeled that of an ''angry young man.''

During the decade that he has been writing, Edgar has produced 40 plays, won numerous awards and fellowships, and earned a reputation as one of England's foremost dramatists. In an interview, Colin Chambers, literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), called Edgar's prizewinning play ''Destiny'' ''the best modern example of the English dramatic tradition.''

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Now with the advent of his first work since ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' the author seems ready to cement that reputation. ''Maydays,'' the first serious drama to have its world premiere on the RSC's new Barbican stage, is already earning such critical plaudits as ''epic,'' ''audacious,'' ''an outstanding play for our time.'' Easily London's most eagerly anticipated drama of the year, Edgar's most recent work is thought to combine the panoramic style of ''Nickleby'' with the earlier themes of ''Destiny.''

In all three works the moral crisis of individual men are played out against the broader historical and social canvas - a dramatic structure most observers consider the traditional strength of British theatrical practices.

In a telephone interview from his Birmingham office, the writer talked about his play, its motives, and the power and role of the theater. Edgar proved to be articulate, intelligent, and profoundly thoughtful about his art.

''(Writing ''Maydays'') was incomparably the most difficult thing I've ever done,'' he confessed. '' 'Nickleby' was a bridge, it gave me the confidence to write on that scale. But 'Maydays' is really a thematic return for me. I don't think you can make major statements about your country every 20 minutes.''

Unlike ''Destiny,'' which probed the ideology of the far right, ''Maydays'' is a sweeping if sobering look at the left - a political position Edgar describes ''as where I have spent my whole adult life.'' The play is a provocative intellectual look at 40 years of human history - chronicling the lives of more than 50 characters from four countries from World War II to present-day disarmament rallies. The final scenes depicting missile deployment on Greenham Common are chillingly immediate.

Well known in his native country as a socialist who got his start writing for touring political groups after he studied drama at the University of Manchester, Edgar contributes regularly to such political journals as New Socialist and Marxism Today. He says writing ''Maydays'' was ''a painful but valuable experience.'' He added, ''Because this play concerns the left, it was difficult for me to maintain the correct objectivity.''

Within the play each of the three main characters - a Russian dissident and two British intellectuals - falls away from socialist ideologies, ideologies about which Edgar himself is disillusioned but to which he is still loyal.

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For Edgar it comes down to an inability to reconcile hard-line political theory with the equally obdurate facts about mankind. He admits that Karl Marx may have indeed misread human nature.

''What the Left says is that under socialism human nature will be different, '' he says. ''That gives the right unlimited latitude to define human nature'' - an act that Edgar says results in a definition for mankind as ''economically self-interested and grouped into mutually hostile tribes or nations.''

What socialism fails to see, according to the playwright, is ''that those urges are just as much a part of human nature as the urges that make people demand social change.'' And that, says the author, is what ''Maydays'' is about: ''the failure of the left to understand what drives people to (the left) in search of social change, and so it drives them straight back out again.''

One of his disillusioned characters in ''Maydays'' says, ''from 'Trotskyist' to 'Libertarian' to 'Democratic Socialist' . . . I realized that all these . . . were set like flint against the way that human beings really are.''

Despite the play's relatively unqualified success in London, Edgar retains doubts about its ability to transcend parochial audiences. ''Destiny'' has never been performed in the United States and the structure of ''Maydays'' almost necessitates a working knowledge of recent British and European political history. And many of the characters are specific English types in class, education, and viewpoint which are virtually unrecognizable to outsiders. Says Edgar, ''It's such an arrogant thing to admit, but I would love to do a political play in America just to be able to say, 'You can actually do this.' ''

It is not that politics doesn't play well in the US, says the author, but that Americans, whom he calls the masters of musical theater, simply look to different media for their political messages. ''In the US it's always been film and television (where political statements are made.)'' During the year he spent in the US on a British Council fellowship, Edgar found ''four major artistic statements about the Vietnam war'' - three were films and one was a stage play. ''In the States the people who want to make those kinds of statements simply go into film.''

Still, the playwright maintains a ''campaigning zeal'' for American theater. ''The US and the U.K. are two of the countries dealing in the language that has produced the best dramas in the world,'' he says. ''What is the point of having airplanes,'' he asks, if not for the cultural cross-fertilization between the two countries. Edgar admits that the challenges of performing political dramas can be significant. They usually require large casts and an audience familiar with historical events, although he points to the recent Broadway success of fellow British playwright David Hare's drama ''Plenty'' as indicative of a growing American appreciation for serious theater.

Why the fervor to see such postures on stage rather than between the covers of a book or on a screen? For David Edgar it comes down to the power of imagination. ''Any idiot can go out and film a jet plane,'' he says, but actually creating the illusion of a jet on stage - which occurs in the final moments of ''Maydays'' - becomes ''a more powerful statement.'' Why? ''Because you know it's not a plane and you don't know what it's going to do. TV and film are so literal. But in the theater, there is someone between you and reality. You know that a group of intelligent people have sat down for hours figuring out those effects, figuring out how to honor the stage. It really exercises your imagination.''

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