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.