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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

“Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty”, by Greg Dening

459 pages, Cambridge University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0387823911

Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty deals primarily with the mutiny of the Bounty, weaving the account in and out of an ethnographical discussion of life aboard men-of-war and of the political and spiritual life of the Polynesians, with great emphasis on their ideas of the sacred and of sacrifice. The tale is familiar, but it is not always accurately told (much less filmed), but suffice to say in 1787, 33-year-old Lieutenant William Bligh was given the command of the Bounty, a 215-ton merchantman armed with 4 four-pounder guns and set-up as a floating conservatory to carry young breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies, there to provide cheap food for the African slaves. Greg Dening, in this study of the actual mutiny on the Bounty, examines both the history of what happened and its representation in film, literature, and popular culture. One of the more famous stories of the high seas, the subject of numerous films and many books, the mutiny has evidently left a significant mark.

Dening chooses to view and represent the whole episode as theatre, and the book is presented (in its framework, if not actual form) as a play. There are three acts to it, complete with prologue, two entr’actes, and an epilogue. Each act is introduced, and then offers two scenes – a Narrative one, describing the actual events, and a Reflection on those events. Combining the study of history with more modern theories of literature, theatre, and popular culture, Dening is able to give a comprehensive account and explanation of why the events on the Bounty became what they did. One argument made in the book is that the notorious Captain Bligh was, in fact, not the sadistic, mean man he is made out to be, and that his failure lies elsewhere. Dening convincingly presents the events as theatre, and he basically argues that Bligh’s failure was in not knowing how to play his role. Dening follows the transformation of the Bounty story from history to popular legend to the subject of books and films; he even finds a wealth of material in the repeated filming of the story, each version of which he discusses.

Everyone who has ever been subjected to a history course in the modern university is familiar with the obsession with primary sources, with the Left dictatorship which controls academia insisting that the “truth” is to be found in the pamphlets and diaries and letters of the unimportant and the obscure, rather than in the texts and speeches of the great who shaped our understanding of events. Dening, on the other hand, understands that there is a fundamental dichotomy between the way participants’ experienced historical events and their importance to the society as a whole. In a very real sense, it is simply not important whether Christ was the son of God, whether England ruled the colonies harshly, whether Southerners fought for slavery, whether FDR ended the Depression, whether Nixon subverted the Constitution and Clinton merely lied about sex – what matters is that this is how we perceive these events. In Dening’s felicitous phrase: Illusions make things true; truth does not dispel illusion.

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