For Dening, history saturates every moment of our cultural and personal existence. Yet he is keenly aware that the actual past remains fundamentally irreplicable. All histories are culturally crafted artifacts, commensurate with folk tales, stage plays, or films. Whether derived from logbooks and letters, or displayed on music hall stages and Hollywood back lots, history is in essence our making sense of what has and continues to happen, creating for us a sense of our cultural and individual selves.
Through juxtapositions of actual events and creative reenactments of them—such as the mutiny on the Bounty in 1787 and the various Hollywood films that depict that event—Dening calls attention to the provocative moment of theatricality in history making where histories, cultures, and selves converge. Moving adeptly across varied terrains, from the frontiers of North America to the islands of the South Pacific, Dening marshals a striking array of diverse, often recalcitrant, sources to examine the tangled histories of cross-cultural clash and engagement. Refusing to portray conquest, colonization, and hegemony simply as abstract processes, Dening, in his own culturally reflexive performance, painstakingly evokes the flesh and form of past actors, both celebrated and unsung, whose foregone lives have become our history.