“Cosi”, by Louis Nowra, is a play which comprises of many distinct characters, each with their own unique backgrounds and outlooks on life. Throughout Cosi, the different ways in which the patients escape the depressing reality of the asylum and their conditions become evident. Roy creates a false memory of a fantastic childhood and obsesses over Cosi Fan Tutte and “the music of the spheres” so as to suppress the tragic knowledge of his experiences as a child and his life in the asylum.
In a similar way, Ruth obsesses over the notions of truth, reality and illusion, constantly seeks reassurance and requires detailed routines to feel comfortable. Julie uses drugs in order to feel “living” and claims that the opera allows her to get out of her ward and think about something other than her need for drugs. It is also clear that Lewis becomes a temporary means of escaping the miserable asylum for Julie, since Lewis and Julie both show signs of attraction towards each other.
Similarly, Cherry takes refuge in an imagined relationship with Lewis that is strangely nourished by food, and although her love is unrequited, she draws satisfaction from any encounter with Lewis. Whether it is their personal conditions or their shared experience of life in the asylum, each patient escapes the negative aspects of their lives in unique ways. Roy finds optimism in a make-believe childhood encompassing high culture, elegance, music, joy and a lovely mother while the reality as revealed by Cherry is that “he’s an orphan” who “spent most of his early life in orphanages and being farmed to foster parents” (p. 6). Roy refers to this falsehood in an attempt to forget and deny the truth about his childhood and also attempts to block out the reality of the asylum, hoping that Cosi Fan Tutte would be “like [his] childhood” (p. 61), “a world as far removed from [the] depressing asylum as possible” (p. 63). Throughout the play, Roy also rejects the reality of the effects of his condition on others, not wanting to believe that he is viewed as a pest due to his mood swings and demanding personality.
When Doug is put in the closed ward and needs to be replaced by a new actor, Julie says, “no one in Roy’s ward will volunteer because they say they get enough of him as it is”. Roy’s response, “It’s only their sense of humour”, highlights that he maintains his own perception of reality that is unlike the truth. Roy’s ambivalence towards Lewis also shows that his reactions aren’t always based directly on what is actually occurring around him, but perhaps on some other ‘reality’ that exists in his mind.
Roy is quick to praise Lewis when he is feeling positive and quick to criticize Lewis when the fulfillment of his ‘vision’ appears to be in jeopardy. This also applies to Roy’s lively praise of Nick’s directing abilities. While Nick has not done anything considerable to deserve Roy’s praise, Roy is instantly enthusiastic, and says to Lewis, “brilliant! Everything is coming alive. Everything matches my vision” (p. 45). Roy is so desperate to sustain his illusion of beauty and harmony whilst forgetting his miserable childhood and mundane life within the “white walls” of his ward.
Similarly, Ruth maintains several obsessions so as to escape reality. She says, “I’m not going to sing a song that is not word perfect. You don’t want me to make a fool of myself, do you? ”, suggesting that she dreads making mistakes for fear of being ridiculed and thus requires order and perfection in all that she does. Ruth is also preoccupied with truth, reality and illusion, and her journey in the play involves forming an understanding of the different kinds of ‘truths’ around her.
Ruth is fixated on tangible details and she worries about things like having real coffee in the opera and exactly how many steps to take across the stage. When Lewis simply tells her to walk “naturally”, she is troubled by the notion and wants to differentiate between ‘real’ and ‘natural’. It is important for her to distinguish between things concerning reality – this is a coping mechanism which diverts her conscious awareness away from certain personal ‘realities’, such as her anxiety disorder and lack of confidence, the memory of her violent relationship and her life in the asylum.
Julie resents being in the asylum and feels that the staff “don’t know how to deal with drug users” (p. 32). For this reason, she looks to Lewis and the making of Cosi Fan Tutte for peace of mind. In reference to the play, Julie says, “I like it because I’m doing something. Using up energy. Getting out of my ward. God, how I hate that ward” (p. 36). The asylum is perceived to be prison by all the patients; one which, like Julie, they all wish to escape using different means.
Julie escapes the asylum through busying herself with Cosi Fan Tutte as well as Lewis, a temporary love interest. The latter is evident in Julie and Lewis’ articulate discussions and “passionate” kiss (p. 68). Julie discusses her usage of drugs which can also be viewed as a form of escapism on her behalf. She says that “drugs make [her] feel sort of living” and compares “junk” to love, saying that “Some people can’t imagine life without love” while she “can’t imagine life without junk” (p. 37).
Julie does not seem to care that drugs are not an accepted means to feeling alive – she recalls the shrink calling them a ‘crutch’ while she calls them a ‘rocket to the stars’ (p. 32). This highlights that Julie has her own perception of reality that is contrary to what is widely held to be true, thus making her perception of reality (that drugs make her feel alive) a means of escaping a possible reality (that drugs are in fact, a crutch). Bearing this in mind, Cosi Fan Tutte is also a way of escaping the reality of her drug addiction.
Julie confirms this, saying that she likes the theatre because it “doesn’t make [her] sit in her ward thinking” about her need for drugs (p. 37). As for the other patients, Cosi Fan Tutte is a means of escaping the ward for Cherry. She links her excitement about being out of her ward and in the theatre to her preoccupation with food, saying, “This is the best part, isn’t it? Not having to eat lunch in a ward. But in a theatre. ” Cherry also escapes the reality of the asylum as well as her implied negative experiences of love through pursuing a relationship with Lewis.
She suggests that her experiences of love have been fraught with conflict, referring to Cosi Fan Tutte as “just another thing about the battle of the sexes” (p. 11) and saying that “most women fight hard to keep men out of their pants” (p. 61). It seems that her unrequited love for Lewis is a way of experiencing love without conflict, since there is no real relationship between them. She is ignorant of the fact that her love is unrequited, and forms an illusionary connection with Lewis by constantly trying to be close to him and feed him sandwiches.
Cherry also threatens to break Julies arm if she kisses Lewis again, highlighting Cherry’s jealousy of their relationship, while continuing to appease her loneliness and lack of love by pretending to be in a romantic relationship with Lewis despite the fact that this is more likely to be occurring for Julie. Each patient in the asylum has their own way of suppressing and ignoring the depressing or unwanted aspects of their lives. While all the patients wish to escape the reality of their life in the asylum through participating in Cosi Fan Tutte, each individual also has personal struggles which they wish to block out.
Roy appeals to his vision of the perfect theatre production so as to find hope despite his experiences in the asylum and his parentless and unstable childhood, Ruth requires detailed routines, order and an understanding of reality, illusion and pretending so as to feel less anxious and unconfident, Julie requires drugs to make her feel alive and uses Lewis and the theatre to replace the role of drugs in her life and Cherry equates food with love and looks to Lewis for affection and affirmation despite the fact that these feelings are not mutual.
Throughout Cosi, the unique personalities and struggles of the patients become clear as they use different approaches to escape the personal hardships in their lives. By Theresa Chamoun