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For the three-decades-plus of his life, Toronto-born, Winnipeg-raised playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff has enjoyed an existence that impresses as relatively peaceful compared to his war resister hero in his new drama Deserter.

Thau-Eleff’s play is about an AWOL soldier who flees his obligation to the U.S. army to reside in Canada, only to find himself in an existential limbo, trapped between his war experiences in Iraq, his attempt at a new life in small-town Manitoba, and a holding cell where external forces are battling over his legal fate.

Daniel Thau-Eleff</p>

Daniel Thau-Eleff

Thau-Eleff was inspired to write the play after a 2010 encounter with Joshua Key, a real-life deserter from the Iraq War who fought to stay in Canada in 2005 as a conscientious objector seeking refugee status.

"I feel that the larger issues that Joshua spoke about and I speak about in this play are timeless," Thau-Eleff says.

"Soldiers are tasked with violence. Violence is in their job description. To an extent, they’re not expected to think for themselves.

"So what agency do soldiers have?" he says. "What agency do any of us have?"

What was it about Key that struck a nerve with Thau-Eleff?

"I always go back to where I came from," the playwright says. "I grew up here in Winnipeg, in the Jewish community. For me, it’s always about the Holocaust. It always goes back to the Holocaust."

"My family were Holocaust survivors and I don’t remember being an age before I had heard of the Holocaust," he says.

"Clearly, in my community, there was a very strong admiration for non-Jewish civilians who resisted the Nazis."

Thau-Eleff’s last play, the monologue Good People Bad Things actually centred on Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann, who applied his bureaucratic talents to creating and operating the terrible clockwork of the Nazi extermination of European Jews. It was Eichmann who inspired the phrase "the banality of evil."

"For me, this (play) picks up where that left off," Thau-Eleff says. "Here’s a person who behaved differently in our own time. So what happened? What are the consequences?"

"To me, the issue of a soldier saying, ‘No, I’m not going to do this,’ puts a huge crack into the narratives about war," he says. "It puts a crack in the us versus them part of the narrative."

Some, especially the people in the audience who may not be soldiers, and have nothing to do with the military, may ask: Where do we fit into this?

"If we agree that soldiers, when they are asked to do something that’s clearly wrong and violates any moral codes they have, and we agree (desertion) is what that soldier should do, then where do we fit in? What do we do to support that?"

In press material for Deserter, it is said the central character of Curtis Colby has "come unstuck in time" as a way to describe the non-linear path of the narrative. It is also, for Thau-Eleff, a homage to another hero of fiction, a Second World War prisoner Billy Pilgrim from the 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

"I was very inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s writing and particularly Slaughterhouse-Five and his famous metaphor for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)," he says, referring to Pilgrim’s penchant for popping in and out of different periods of his life.

"That notion of being unstuck in time goes hand in hand with trauma, and that unlocked this story," he says. "A less eloquent way of putting it is: everything is happening at once."

That temporal confusion dovetails with the fact that, when it comes to war, history tends to repeat itself.

"These themes come up again and again," he says. "I recently had a friend speculate that we’ll probably have many more resisters coming to Canada in the near future."

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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