Saturday, February 26, 2011

The standard-bearer?

In today's Globe, theatre critic Don Aucoin bemoans the decline across the culture in standards of excellence.  In every area of public life, it seems, our awards (or the number of nominees for those awards) are proliferating. "From the Oscars to sports to Idol," Aucoin sighs, "We’ve become a little too all-inclusive." Indeed, he frets whether 'lowering the bar' "[might] also reflect an underlying uncertainty . . . about what constitutes excellence nowadays."

Hmmmm. Deep thoughts, surely. And to be honest, I agree completely with Don! But I had to wonder - where does he himself fall in this 'all-inclusive' critical culture?

Let's find out!

Opening up my trusty Excel app, I decided to plot my own reviews against Don's for every show we both covered in the last few weeks (I wrote about several more shows than he did, but maybe that's because I'm a little more inclusive on that score!).

The results are at left, tabulated two ways - one with a smooth curve reflecting my sense of increasing quality, and the other a smooth curve reflecting Don's.  (Needless to say, a certain subjectivity was involved in reducing the reviews to numbered rankings, but I think if you read them all - and you still can, online - you'd roughly agree with my assessments.)

Not surprisingly, we pretty much concurred on the best shows of the winter (In the Footprint, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and Psy, all at ArtsEmerson, and Ruined, at the Huntington).  I, however, ranked several of the lesser shows quite a bit lower than Don did - which may, of course, have merely been a matter of personal taste.

But look at the scales involved.   On a scale of 0 to 5, I rated shows all the way from 1 to nearly 4.5.  Don kept to merely half that range - only the ART's Ajax dropped below a "3," which I roughly think of as an "average" show, i.e. "flawed but could be worth your while."  Seen that way, Don thought every show but one of the winter season was worth your while, where I only thought about half of them were.

So while I can agree with Don's assessment of the culture at large (in which, as the Dodo told Alice, all must have prizes), I do wish he'd look in the mirror just once, and ask himself whether he's really bucking that trend or not.  In his reviews, everyone may not win the prize, but almost everyone is nominated.


  1. I'm usually a fan of your reviews, even though they tend to be very critical. They're usually accurate.

    I just want to point one thing out, because it usually bugs me when people do this:

    You can't use a line graph if the x axis isn't continuous. You can use a line graph if there are evenly spaced values, but in this case, you have plays on that axis. You should be using a bar graph.

    Sorry!! But I really do like your point in this post.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Allie. True, there are no "units" on the x axis. So if I tried to pull a trend line off this as if it were an actual line graph against an increasing "x" value, I'd be in the wrong. Still, if you want to enhance the variation in the "y" values, the line helps you visually much more than a scatter graph does. Hence, the fudge. I don't think it actually creates any sense of inaccuracy.