Note: Louis Nowra’s play is referred to as Così while Mozart’s opera is referred to as Così Fan Tutte in this study guide.
Louis Nowra’s semi-autobiographical play, Così is a touching yet biting portrayal of human relationships in a Melbourne mental institution ostracised by society.
Prior to the 1970s, those who suffered from mental disorders were sent to mental institutions in order to prevent them from bringing shame onto their families and the community. Since there was little scientific progress on mental health, people with a spectrum of ‘illnesses’ were admitted. These ‘illnesses’ ranged from true mental instability, including Schizophrenia and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to alcoholics and drug abusers. Due to the increase in social stigma towards these ‘problems’, those believed to be mentally ill were secretly admitted and matters only discussed privately within a family. It is because of the private nature of people dealing with mental patients in addition to people’s fear of the ‘abnormal’ patients that a divide between mental institutions and society existed.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War, which occurred from 1955 to 1975, lead to over 100,000 Melbournian demonstrators at moratoriums to end the violence. The international dispute ignited as a result of North Vietnam’s desire to unite South Vietnam with North Vietnam under communism. In an attempt to prevent South Vietnam from being taken over as a communist state, the United States, Australia and other countries such as South Korea and New Zealand joined South Vietnam as anti-communist forces. While this war divided countries, it was also an issue that was highly debated by Australian citizens, as seen in Così.
Also during this period was a large force behind the feminist movement for women’s rights. The main concerns included education, equal pay in the workplace, and a women’s right to control their body – in particular the decision to use contraception and undergo abortion. As a consequence, a new era of ‘free love’ emerged, since women possessed sexual freedom. However, free love also criticises marriage due to the lack of emotional involvement, which leads to the question of fidelity and loyalty in committed relationships.
Setting / Time
Melbourne Mental Institution, Australia during 1970s.
The line between reality and illusion is explored through the ‘insane’ characters as well as the ‘normal characters.’ Nowra demonstrates that reality is unique for each person, and often people may slip into illusions in order to avoid the truth. It is suggested that although they may not have been completely ‘normal’, those considered to be ‘insane’ still possess great insight that ‘normal’ people may overlook. Additionally, Così reminds the reader of the absurdities of a mental asylum shunned by society, which would only have added to patients’ instabilities, especially as families dealt with the matter secretly. Furthermore, the issue of love and fidelity since Mozart’s era is proven to be relevant up until our modern times.
The protagonist of Così, Lewis is a new university graduate who has agreed to direct a play with patients from a mental institution because he required the money. At first, Lewis shares the same values as his friends Nick and Lucy, that love is unimportant due to the ongoing Vietnam War. During the time he spends with the patients however, Lewis experiences a turning point in his understanding and perception of people. By the end of the play, Lewis learns to appreciate love and friendship over war and politics.
Girlfriend and roommate of Lewis. She has an affair with Nick who shares similar beliefs – that the Vietnam War protest is more important than anything else. Lucy cannot understand why Lewis is directing a play about love when thousands are dying in the war.
An experienced student director, roommate and friend of Lewis. He promises to help Lewis with Così Fan Tutte, however quickly he breaks this vow in order to spend time with Lucy. Lewis later discovers that Lucy and Nick are having an affair. Nick is heavily involved in the moratorium, a protest against the Vietnam War.
A patient who was sent to the mental institution as a result of burning his mother’s cats and home. He is a pyromaniac – someone who gains satisfaction from deliberately starting fires. He appears to light fires quite frequently, once in the theatre toilets and once outside the theatre. He also supports free love and is keen on the potential violence that may transpire at the moratorium.
A patient who insists on performing Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte even though none of the other patients can sing nor speak Italian. Believing that Lewis is a poor director, Roy takes charge assigning patients to characters in the play. He is quite blunt in expressing his opinions of others.
A shy patient who rarely speaks and avoids eye contact with others. A former lawyer, he now suffers from a disability with his left arm. However it is shown to be a false disability when he switches his ‘bad arm’ from left to right. He is obedient others, especially Roy. Towards the end of the play however, he overcomes his timidity to defend Lewis.
A patient who has an abusive personality and carries a flick knife with her. She has a violent relationship with Doug, as she is always ordering him to ‘go burn a cat.’ She is overprotective of Lewis, with whom she has a crush. As a form of affection, she is constantly feeding him with food in order to ‘fatten’ him up.
A patient addicted to illicit drugs. She is Lewis’ love interest in the play and is a catalyst for Lewis and Lucy’s deteriorating relationship. She believes that men have double standards, since females are routinely targeted for their infidelity while men are also unfaithful to their partners. It is revealed after her affair with Lewis that she is involved in a relationship.
A patient suffering from an obsessive disorder. Throughout the play, she focuses on minor issues such as having real or fake coffee on set, and the number of steps she needs to take to reach her position on stage.
A catatonic patient who takes the part of musician for Così Fan Tutte. He prefers to play Wagner over Mozart, which sparks a dispute between himself and Roy.
A social worker who organised the patients from the mental institution to be a part of the theatre project. He is patronising towards the patients and represents society’s view on the mentally ill.
Fidelity & infidelity
According to Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, the issue of fidelity is depicted to be an ideal that is never achieved. Since ‘women are like that’ – the interpretation of ‘così fan tutte’, Mozart encouraged the belief that men should simply accept women are indeed disloyal in relationships. Nowra illustrates this same idea about women and infidelity through Lewis and Lucy’s relationship. While Lucy is ‘sleeping’ with Lewis, she is also triflingly ‘having sex’ with Nick. When Lewis discovers Lucy’s betrayal, she waves aside his shock, defending that ‘it is not as if we’re married.’ The revelation does indeed prove that Così Fan Tutte is correct in stating that, ‘woman’s constancy is like the Arabian Phoenix. Everyone swears it exists, but no one has seen it.’
Although the women in both Così Fan Tutte and Così are shown to be unfaithful, so are the men. While the men in Così Fan Tutte do not actively participate in adultery, they do fabricate their departure to the war and also disguise themselves as ‘Albanians.’ Their deception is also a betrayal to their wives. Meanwhile, Don Alfonso manipulates everyone. As seen in Così, Lewis is unfaithful to Lucy as he kisses Julie during rehearsals. Julie later reveals that she has a girlfriend who she would prefer to be with, confirming that both men and women are unfaithful in relationships.
Sanity & insanity
The line between sanity and insanity is explored through the juxtaposition of the patients and society. In the 1970s, those who behaved abnormally were declared to be ‘insane’ and placed in mental institutions that were shunned by society. As we now know with scientific developments, these environments often failed to assist their patients. The use of electric shock therapy for example, frequently lead to severe, long term negative effects upon patients.
While the patients were viewed as ‘madmen’ from outsiders, Lewis soon discovers that they are in many ways, ordinary people. Although each patient has a mental flaw, all possess interesting opinions and beliefs on different matters. It was perhaps society’s abandonment of these people that so few were able to appreciate them as ordinary humans. Instead, many adopted a sense of fear and patronisation towards the ‘insane.’
Reality & illusion
The question of what is real or an illusion is weaved through the patients’ state of mentality. As shown through Ruth who struggles to pretend having real coffee on stage, it is difficult for some to distinguish reality from illusion, even if it is clear to everyone else. For others, they may willingly refuse the truth and succumb to an illusion. Lewis deluded himself into believing that Lucy was faithful, when all signs such as Nick residing in the same home and Nick and Lucy spending time together, indicated that Lucy was in fact, blatantly disloyal.
Misogyny, or the hatred of women is commonly shown through Così. Set in a time where women’s rights were rapidly shifting, the hatred of women for being merely female grew more prominent. The idea of misogyny accompanies the tradition of male-dominated societies where women had few, if any privileges and power. Nowra attacks Lucy’s involvement with free love encouraging readers view her with emotions of disdain and distaste. Women’s hatred towards their own sex is also a form of misogyny. Cherry and Julie’s strained relationship involving Lewis’ affections is explores suspicion, jealously and overprotection.
Learning & Self-development
Lewis’ experience with the patients does, as Justin predicted, teach him more than his entire university education. At the beginning, Lewis is only interested in earning some money and alike other outsiders, views them as madmen. However, as he works with the patients, he develops a new perspective and insight into certain matters and himself. When Nick and Lucy denounce him for doing a play about love, Lewis sees that love is important, regardless of the Vietnam War. He learns about the importance of friendship and instead of attending the moratorium, helps the patients prepare for their performance with an additional rehearsal.
The setting of a burnt-out theatre depicts the miserable environment the patients of mental institutions are forced to live with. As they are ostracised by the community, a lack of care and support is shown through the rejected and deteriorating theatre. The patients’ considerable enthusiasm highlights their unfortunate circumstances, since even a chance to spend their time in an old building performing a play causes much excitement.
The women in both Così Fan Tutte and Così are compared with the Arabian Phoenix. The mythical creature is a representation of women, for it is beautiful and enchanting, capturing men such as the god Apollo with its voice. This reflects the power of women to attract men. Nevertheless, its rarity, as often commented in Cosi, is linked with the seemingly infrequent loyalty demonstrated by women.
The lights in Act 1 Scene 1 highlight Lewis’ entrance into a new world, where he associates with patients who will ultimately, help him in learning and self-development. At first Lewis possesses a ‘pitch black’ perspective of the world, along with Lucy and Nick. This is a representation of their modern beliefs that circulate around politics and the war. When the lights are turned on, Roy is present, demonstrating that the patients of the mental institutions are the source for Lewis’ changing perspective throughout the play.
On opening night, Lewis gives in to Zac who wants to include a last minute piano piece. Julie comes in, telling Lewis he needs to speak to Roy, who is undergoing stage fright and wishes to quit the production. Lewis leads Roy to a private area, and is empathetic as Roy fears of forgetting his lines and people staring at him. Lewis encourages him that people should be looking at him all the time, since that would mean he is giving a good performance. Realising the truth in Lewis’ comforting words, Roy announces that ‘I’m back!’ [pg 75] and heads off to put on his costume. Lewis asks Cherry if Roy’s parents are coming, but Cherry reveals that Roy is an orphan, although he pretends otherwise.
Nick, who showed up unseen, comments that the noticed Lewis was absent at the moratorium. Lewis replies that he ‘didn’t have time. We only stopped rehearsing an hour ago’ [pg 76]. Asking if Nick and Lucy are staying to watch, Nick replies that they are going to ‘celebrate the moratorium’ since ‘she doesn’t want to see an opera about a few upper class twits.’ Lewis realises that Nick is planning to have sex with Lucy that night. Unable to tolerate anymore of his old friend, Lewis punches Nick to the floor when he starts to sing ‘They’re Coming To Take Me Away Ha-Haaa’. Nick retaliates by declaring that Lucy left Lewis because he was a ‘lousy fuck’ [pg 77], and leaves.
Cherry, pleased to hear that Lewis is no longer with Lucy, kisses him on the cheek. Seeing Julie walk in, she threatens, ‘he’s mine!’ [pg 78] and heads off. Lewis leads Julie off stage to show her ‘how to move those flats for the change.’ Zac enters, and noticing no one is on stage apart from Ruth, asks her for sex only to be slapped across the face. Henry runs past crying that he said ‘Macbeth’ and Roy ‘tried to strangle’ him because of the omen of saying ‘Macbeth’ before a performance. Zac swallows multiple pills in order to calm his sexual desires down.
Hearing the audience enter the theatre, Lewis and Julie quickly kiss before the show. Ruth runs in, crying for help since Zac is in comatose. Lewis and Julie run off to help. Ruth, acknowledging the chaos, calls Henry to begin his part since they will skip the overture.
Throughout Cosi, Roy presents himself with a dominating and forthright personality. The change in his temperament to cowardly is understood when Lewis discovers that Roy is in fact, an orphan. His strong external image concealed his fears and insecurities since he had never had a true family. Instead he ‘farmed out to foster parents who, realising what a nut case they had on their hands, put him back, quick smart’ [pg 76]. His sudden change in behaviour before performing to an audience is due to his fear of being people ‘staring’ [pg 75] at him. Since he had spent much time inside wards, an indication of his adopted family’s failure to support him, Roy has become used to being a ‘reject.’ Hence, he has lived a life unnoticed and insignificant. His role in the play however, places the attention and spotlight onto him for the first time.
The split between Lewis and Nick’s friendship is forged due to their contrasting ideas. Nick’s betrayal by believing that ‘I thought you’d think the same [about free love]’ [pg 77] rather than appreciating his friend’s opposition in sharing Lucy demonstrates that Nick has no sense of respect for loyalty, either in friendships nor romantic relationships. Lewis’ statement that ‘women’s constancy is like an Arabian Phoenix’ is not only applied to women, but also men, reinforcing the idea that both sexes can be disloyal.
Nick satirises the patients by singing the song ‘They’re Coming To Take Me Away Ha-Haaa’ by Napolean XIV, a popular and successful single released in 1966. The song adopts society’s view on the mentally ill by including politically incorrect lyrics about a man about to be sent off to a mental institution. Nick’s treatment of the patients as merely a joke only further drives apart his friendship with Lewis.
‘Lewis, you’ll have to speak to Roy…I’m back!’ [pg 74 – 75]
‘Opening night nerves, Lewis?….[He goes]’ [pg 76 – 78]
‘I purposely didn’t take me medication today so I’d be right on top of everything.’ [pg 73]
‘I don’t have a concept, I’m a director.’ [pg 74]
‘A hundred thousand people, maybe 200. Took hours to get to Parliament House, yelling out, ‘1, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want your fuckin’ war’. Radicalised the nation.’ [pg 76]
‘No, she’s sleeping with you, we’re having sex.’
‘Lucy’s not possessive about you, I’m not possessive about her. What’s the fuss?’
‘What are you on about – too much time with the loonies, Lewis.’ [pg 77]
‘It’s only sex.’
‘Women. You have to wrap it all up in fancy language and then they swoon for you, when all it comes down to is the same thing.’ [pg 79]
‘Women are God’s punishment for men playing with themselves.’
‘Everyone blames women but I forgive them, if they change their love a thousand times a day, some call it sin, others a drug but I think it’s the necessity of women’s hearts.’ [pg 80]
The group performs the final scene of the opera with Ferrando and Guglielmo in their Australian military uniforms. The queue for music is missed, and the group whisper to each for one of them to faint. Roy pretends to have a heart attack while Lewis runs off stage to turn on the music. They all sing to the Italian tune with Ferrando and Guglielmo declaring that they will not ‘put [their wives] to the test again’ [pg 83] while the women declare that they ‘will compensate your heart / with love and with fidelity / and will love you forever.’
The correlation between the two plays is illustrated since both the men and women discover each other’s disloyalty. While Ferrando and Guglielmo are aware of their wives infidelity, the wives learn that the men deceived them into believing that they had been sent to the war. This storyline is similar to Lewis and Lucy’s relationship, since Lewis kissed Julie while Lucy slept with Nick. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the opera indicates that despite the ‘vicissitudes of life’ [pg 84], one must accept that life comes with both ups and downs in order to ‘find serenity and peace’.
‘We are safe and sound and have returned from the war our hearts full of joy / Wanting to embrace our sweethearts and thank them for their fidelity.’ [pg 80 – 81]
‘I’ve deceived you but my deception / undeceived your lovers who, / from now on will be wiser. Give me your hands, now that you’re united / Embrace each other and say no more about it / All four of you can laugh now / as I have laughed and will continue to laugh.’ [pg 83]
‘My love, if this is true / I will compensate your heart / with love and with fidelity/ and will love you forever.’
‘I believe you, my beautiful one, / But I won’t put you to the test again.’
‘Is this a dream / I’m confused and ashamed / But doesn’t matter if they fooled me/ because I’ll fool others.’ [pg 84]
‘Happy is the man who calmly takes life as her finds it / and through the vicissitudes of life / lets himself be ruled by reason / what makes another weep / will make him laugh / and despite the tempest of his life / he will find serenity and peace.’
After the performance, Justin congratulates Lewis on his ‘marvellous’ [pg 84] play. He comments on how Lewis succeeded in brining the cast ‘out of their shells,’ the goal of his project. Congratulating Lewis again, Justin presents him an envelop with his pay.
Ruth thanks Lewis while still obsessing over the number of steps she took on stage. Doug comes up, stating that he was a part of the audience. He asks about Lewis’ girlfriend and when Lewis shares that he and Lucy have split, Doug says he meant Julie. Lewis avoids the question; Doug goes on to declare that he might go after Lucy since she is into ‘free love and orgies’ [pg 86]. As usual, Cherry tells him to ‘go burn a cat.’ Cherry shoves chocolate liqueur down Lewis’ mouth. She then kisses him ‘long and passionately’ and departs. Henry shakes Lewis’ hand with his left hand that was previously ‘paralysed.’ Lewis asks Henry about his arms, but Henry brushes it off, saying that the bad arm ‘changes.’ Henry exits.
Lewis undresses, only to have Julie watch him surreptitiously. She reveals that she’s going to leave the institution for Sydney, and an upset Lewis offers to driver her to the railway station. However, she quietly rejects his offer since she thinks she has fallen for him. She explains that the problem is that she has a girlfriend, who will be joining her in the move. She announces her goodbye by kissing him on the cheek. Coincidently Cherry walks in, and upon seeing the kiss, pulls out her flick knife. Lewis jumps between the two to protect Julie and fervently kisses Cherry in order to calm her down. He takes the knife from her, calling it a ‘keepsake’ [pg 87]. Julie leaves by mocking Cherry, declaring that Lewis was ‘the best lay I’ve ever had’ [pg 88]. Lewis calms Cherry once again by saying that Julie was only ‘teasing’ her. Roy comes in, providing Lewis a list of criticism, declaring that next year, they will perform Don Giovanni.
Alone, Lewis explains in a soliloquy that ‘there was no next year’ since the ‘theatre mysteriously burn down a week after the performance.’ He had moved out of his apartment soon after. Lucy and Nick ‘didn’t last long because both were not into fidelity.’ Cherry had sent him a love letter, while Ruth became a ‘time and motion expert’ after leaving the institution. Roy moved between wards. Henry and Julie died while Zac joined the music industry. Lewis then turns off the lights on stage leaving the darkness behind.
Albeit the chaotic performance with missed music queues and the consequent improvisation, the play is a success. The overall experience of working with each other has enlivened the patients and helped them to ‘blossom’ [pg 84] out of their solitude. Cherry’s favourite phrase, ‘go burn a cat’ [pg 86] presents a tone of affection towards Doug, rather than her previous feelings of irritation. The flick knife, previously a symbol of her cold defense and sharp character is now in the hands of Lewis, demonstrating that she has rendered herself to warmth and fondness.
Meanwhile, Henry accidently switches from one bad arm to the other, which may be an indication of improving illness. The ‘bad arm’ is a physical representation of his illness, but the shift between arms may demonstrate that the illness is no longer absolute due to the delight the project has provided Henry. His death however, indicates a relapse in mentally, and draws the conclusion that although the project was highly beneficial, it was fleeting.
Although Roy initially despised Lewis’ directing skills, his presentation of the list Lewis demonstrates that Roy does appreciate and value Lewis’ work. Roy’s positivity towards creating a new play the next year again how a simple project can drastically help the ill, in contrast to the mental institutions that seem to do very little, if not even worsen the health of patients.
‘What can you expect from catatonics, right?’ [pg 84]
‘My motto is to try and try again.’
‘You do this old fashioned opera – this is the era of free love and orgies.’ [pg 86]
‘I need my girlfriend. She’s stood by me, through thick and thin, mostly thin.’ [pg 87]
‘You do have a few teething problem with your direction. I made up a list of them.’ [pg 88]
‘Always use the word please and thank you when addressing the cattle, after all, they’re not actors.’
- Così contends that some things are more important than politics.
- In Così, the ‘insane’ characters are quite normal.
- The line between reality and illusion is often blurred.
- Ironically, it is through the ‘madmen’ that Lewis learns what is truly important.
- Nick and Lucy’s ‘modern’ value of free love is depicted to be a backwards belief. Discuss.
- In the face of betrayal, Lewis discovers loyalty.
- ‘They are normal people who have done extraordinary things, thought extraordinary thoughts.’ Così depicts the ‘insane’ characters as heroes. Discuss.
- Mozart wrote, ‘women are like that’ due to their infidelity. Do the characters in Così confirm this belief?
- Beneath the humour in Così is a brutal depiction of society’s treatment of the mentally ill.
- In Così, all characters are forced to face reality.
- In Così, Lewis plays more roles than just a director of the group.
- It is not only Lewis who learns in Così, but other characters as well.
- Così demonstrates that illusion is a safer place than reality.
- ‘Love is an emotional indulgence for the privileged few.’ Does Così warrant Lucy’s beliefs?
- ‘It’s about important things – like love and fidelity.’ How does Lewis learn to distinguish what is important and what is not?
- While the characters in Così work as a group, Così calls attention to their isolation. Discuss.
- The Australian involvement with the Vietnam War only highlights the importance of love and friendship.
- Così is not a play about patients; it is a play about people.
- It is through their performances in Così Fan Tutte that the characters discover themselves.
- Così demonstrates there is darkness in both reality and fantasy.
Learn about Così Fan Tutte
An understanding of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte is required in order to comprehend the themes and purpose of Louis Nowra’s play, Così. The most significant connection between the two pieces is love and fidelity. Much alike the men in Così Fan Tutte, Lewis is confronted with a similar experience where his partner, Lucy is having an affair with his friend, Nick. However, while there are many similarities, there are also considerable differences. Make sure that while studying Così, comparisons are made between the themes, setting / time and dialogue. Furthermore, listen to Così fan tutte. Hearing the opera can help auditory learners gain insight into the emotions and thoughts of the characters via pitch, rhythm etc.
Appreciate that Così is a play
Think about why Louis Nowra chose a writing style of a play. In plays, not only is the dialogue important, so are stage directions and setting. Understand the significance of a play within a play.
Watch Così the film
This is a good way to consolidate or revise your knowledge, especially for visual learners. The film provides a chance to additional insight into characters, setting and dialogue.
Mark Joffe directed the film, Così in 1996. It stars Ben Medelsohn as Lewis, Barry Otto as Roy and Toni Collette as Julie.
Research on history
Historical events and politics during the 1970s are heavily weaved throughout Così. Nowra reflects on the treatment of mentally ill, the Vietnam War, and women’s liberty throughout the characters in the play.
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