On Friday, theater critic-mavens Isaac Butler and Rob Weinert-Kendt officially launched their ambitious labor of love, Critic-o-Meter, a blog ratings system inspired directly by Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, and philosophically by Zagat. The boys at Critic-o-Meter take each Broadway and Off-Broadway production, gather up every online or print review they can find, and then, on the basis of their interpretation, they assign each review a letter grade. They are not grading the critic — his or her qualifications, experience, intelligence or capacity to place the production in a meaningful or relevant context. Rather, they are simply accepting the review — whether from The New York Times, Variety or the latest fellow with his own Web site — and attaching a letter grade reflecting that reviewer’s opinion.
Phase two consists of creating a cumulative grade score from all the reviews they’ve uncovered. As Butler explains: “Our goal with this site is to give everyone with an interest in New York theater a one-stop shop to find out what the critical response has been across the board. Because of time limitations, we are currently only focusing on Broadway and Off-Broadway, but hope, should revenue streams allow us to take on more readers and writers, to also cover Off-Off.
“Once all of the reviews are read, graded and excerpted, we assign a number score to each grade. An F is worth zero, and it goes up one point per increment (F = 0, F+ = 1, etc.) until we get to A+, which equals 14. Then we average them together, and retranslate this new number back into a letter grade.”
After that is done, Butler and Weinert-Kendt provide salient excerpts from each review, with a link to the full-length version. Butler says that this provides readers with both a superficial glimpse of the critical climate, if that’s what they want, and the option of digging deeper for a more comparative analysis. The net effect, Butler says, is to increase conversation about both the plays and their critics — not to diminish it, as some have argued.
In case you feel this report is too New York–centric, you might want to check out Bitter Lemons, Colin Mitchell’s Web site (with archives that date back to April of this year), which also ranks reviews in L.A. from “bitter” to “sweet,” with a percentile ranking of accrued reviews. Example:“The Little Dog Laughed: 80 percent sweet.”
Unlike Critic-o-Meter, however, Bitter Lemons also includes commentary in a section aptly named “Ponderings,” which engages in some discussion, local and national, of what’s happening in the theater world. In some instances, it also puts the critics themselves on the hot seat.
Blogosphere reaction to Critic-o-Meter has been mixed, ranging from gratitude for the public service to annoyance at the implication of what an assigned letter grade actually means. A respondent named Silent Nic commented on New York critic Garrett Eisler’s blog, The Playgoer (which reported on Critic-o-Meter while it was still being fine-tuned): “The Critic-o-Meter is evidence that the final stage in the devolution of the theater review has arrived. I doubt any reviewer who seriously still attempts criticism appreciates his words being reduced to the equivalent of a grade school report card.”
Complaining, as Silent Nic does with restrained fury, about the diminishment of criticism from erudite engagement and discussion of a play’s larger ideas to a Consumer Reports entry is a bit like spitting into the wind. First, as Eisler replied to Silent Nic, the presumption of Critic-o-Meter’s superficiality is too hasty; its links to the original reviews do in fact provide the option for comparative research and discussion simply not available in print. Critic-o-Meter is like the stage version of the World Press Review, the almanac (founded in 1974) of political analyses, which are redacted from international sources and condensed into a single magazine, now a Web site.
While there’s no denying the hunger that Critic-o-Meter is feeding, it is, however, built on three faulty premises. First, most reviews already tilt in the direction of consumer reports, twigs compared to the oak of more investigative drama criticism. It’s a lot of chatter about little. Also, the cumulative scores treat all critics equally, regardless of a publication’s rigor or a critic’s experience. Web site reviews carry the same weight as those in The New York Times — another stone thrown at the Grey Lady’s hegemony (which many welcome). As “Jessica” weighed in on The Playgoer: “This is awesome, especially for a li’l ol’ aspiring theater critic such as myself.” Awesome, indeed.
Never mind reviewing a play, reviewing a review is also an utterly subjective undertaking, on Critic-o-Meter draped in the cloak of mathematics. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard from producers complaining about a “negative” review in L.A. Weekly that I considered complimentary. Often, those reviews drawing complaints have a “GO” attached to them. Yet Critic-o-Meter is built on such a mirage of objective interpretation.
Silent Nic responded to Eisler that he wasn’t complaining about Internet writing but about the devolution of the theater review. (Where have you gone, Walter Kerr? Eric Bentley? Robert Brustein?) Mikhail Shvitkoy, former minister of culture for the Russian Federation, once remarked that every culture produces the art that reflects it. Yes, and every culture also produces the arts criticism that reflects it.
Ours is a culture with a prevalent and public rush to judgment, to a letter grade or score, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down mentality that appears to be replacing the love of investigation, which comes from curiosity. L.A. Weekly’s own restaurant critic, Jonathan Gold, earned his Pulitzer Prize not by grading eateries but by connecting food to the culture at large. He said last week that merely scoring restaurants on some scale holds no interest for him.
Teachers have been complaining for a decade that the test-scores results mandated by the No Child Left Behind program are an irrelevant reflection of a child, of his or her abilities and potential. A theater production, too, is a kind of child, intricate and multidimensional, born of a family history lodged in some cultural context. To assess a play with a grade is mildly insulting to the critic but deeply insulting to the creators.
Critic-o-Meter has captured the pulse of the culture, and offers a one-click-fits-all service. At the same time, it exposes a philosophical divide between criticism that investigates and that which judges — a divide that recalls Vaclav Havel’s advice to Czech schoolchildren: “Stay by those who are seeking the truth; flee from those who claim to have found it.”