Humanity is, at times, shown to be selfish and cruel in Cosi, though these traits are not inherent.
Several characters in Louis Nowra’s play, Cosi, a farcical exposé on the staging of a Mozart opera in an insane asylum, exhibit either narcissistic or mercenary qualities, though the world of Cosi depicts people as essentially caring. Although characters such as Nick and Lucy are motivated by idealistic ambition, their passion for causes paradoxically leads them to hurt those closest to them. Many of Nowra’s other characters are motivated by glory but their seemingly selfish behaviour has beneficial consequences to those around them. Overall, it is Nowra’s portrayal of Lewis, whose personal growth through the play exemplifies the sympathetic nature of humanity, which suggests the ability to care for others, and to valiantly defend worthwhile causes is an indispensable human characteristic.
In Cosi, the characters who seek to fulfil idealistic ambitions, such as ending poverty or opposing the Vietnam War, also – ironically and hypocritically – exhibit callous indifference to the suffering of those closest to them. Thus Nick and Lucy believe fervently in ‘free love’ and saving the world from oppressive governments. Lucy’s claim that ‘love is an emotional indulgence’ is a reflection of her view that ending the Vietnam war or that ‘bread’, ‘shelter’ and ‘equality’ are more important than staging an opera she derides as, ‘reactionary drivel’. Her views, and hypocrisy, shared by Nick are seemingly driven by compassion but blind her to the needs of those around her. Her affair with Nick destroys Lewis’s hopes of marriage with Lucy, and their dismissal of Lewis’s project in directing ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ downplays the positive role he plays, improving the lives of the patients. Nick’s behaviour towards the patients is demeaning and belittling, exposing the hypocrisy of his standards and values. They use the pretext of a belief in ‘free love’ as an excuse for a tawdry affair; their justification for this treacherous act (‘it’s only a fling. It doesn’t mean anything’) seems shallow, and the juxtaposition of Lewis’s retort: ‘women’s fidelity is like the Arabian phoenix’– emphasises the manner in which traditional values are upheld in contrast to the values that form the context of the play. Nowra’s portrayal of Nick and Lucy suggests these characters are products of a social context that purports to care but in dismissing love, their actions are proved to be based on self interest.
Nowra’s characters can be self-centred at times but in many cases their suffering causes them to treat others disdainfully. Roy’s manner is scathing but he means well; he resolutely follows his inner vision, and the outcome – the staging of the Mozart opera Cosi Fan Tutte by a cast of mentally ill – enriches the lives of all cast members. When he exalts Mozart’s music as the ‘harmony of the spheres’ and reflects that without Mozart life would be ‘bedlam’, one senses the depth of his feeling for music as an escape from the tedium and horror of his existence. He is characterised as egocentric and often indifferent to the feelings of others, but Nowra portrays Roy with pathos and humour. In the scene where he reveals the dreams of his childhood: ‘music of the spheres, colourful costumes, joi de vivre’, a world ‘as far removed from the asylum as possible’ he is portrayed as romantic and a dreamer. As the play develops and it becomes apparent this vision of childhood is a figment of his vivid imagination, we are left with a profound empathy towards the character’s plight. Roy is a shattered man and his exuberance and creativity a miraculous response to the hardship he has endured; he values ‘the music of the spheres’, an idealised world of beauty and music. This is his predominant obsession and the reader of Nowra’s script is left with a sense that Roy’s behaviour is driven by his passion for excellence in the arts and the fantasy he has constructed of his own life. His acerbic nature, reflected by comments such as ‘why am I always let down!’ and ‘couldn’t direct traffic down a one way street’ are an outpouring of this sadness and not motivated by greed or cruelty, but reflect the lack of restraint characterised by other ‘inmates’ of the asylum.
Nowra’s depiction of Lewis is an embodiment of moderation, a balance between those who value free love and socialism, and those who adhere to conservative, traditional notions of love and society. Initially portrayed as lacking assertiveness, Lewis’s progression throughout the play, both in terms of developing confidence in directing and a rejection of contemporary values, suggests people can be caring and can expect consideration from others. Without the high-flown romantic temperament of Roy or the conservatism of Henry, Lewis eschews the values Nick and Lucy represent. Though initially he tacitly supports free love, his expectation of Lucy to be faithful to him and subsequent horror at her betrayal reveal an expectation of fidelity in marriage. His sarcastic use of the quote from the opera – “women’s fidelity is like the Arabian phoenix” – reveals the failings of the contemporary attitude to love. Likewise his concern for the members of the cast is evident when he won’t allow Nick to call the patients ‘loonies’. He even chooses ‘Cosi’ over a moratorium, exemplifying his commitment to the project they are working on, which eventually creates therapeutic benefit to the patients. Even his care for Cherry, whose obvious attempts at flirtation are overwhelming, reflects his patient, enduring temperament; he is in nowise attracted by her advances but he willingly accepts her sandwiches and kisses her at the end to mollify her and save her from violently attacking Julie, thus diffusing a difficult situation. Hence, it is Lewis’ actions, based on altruistic concern and genuine empathy for others that suggest that human beings are often motivated by selfless desires.
Nowra’s play, Cosi, uses farce, but also pathos, to paint a portrait of life in a mental institution. The world of Cosi is populated with people who have suffered yet who care for one another. Whilst many of the characters’ attempts to be altruistic are in effect hypocritical and self serving, it is Nowra’s presentation of Lewis to suggest cruelty is not inherent to people. By the play’s denouement, Lewis realises that fidelity is important, commitment is something to be valued and working with the societies’ refuse close to home is more crucial than causes abroad. Despite the play’s dour conclusion, it is the play’s climax, wherein the patients stage Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte that the ‘cast’ creates a world where beauty, music, art are valued – in short, an optimistic world.