Over hundreds of years, many talented people have brought their art to us as writers, actors, singers and musicians. However, for quite a few of these gifted people, there was a darker substance that lurked in their life and career – opium.
Opium is a black sticky tar which is the latex (sap) of the opium poppy. It contains over a dozen drugs, but the three most common types of opiate addiction are an opiate painkiller, heroin and methadone. Opium in all its various forms is a substance that so many great artists have ‘battled’ with.
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, 1772 – 1834
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, critic, and philosopher who is thought of as one of the founders of Romanticism wrote the poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. However, Coleridge was widely known as a consistent user of opium as a relaxant and antidepressant as well as for the treatment of several health concerns. But for Coleridge’s career the more he became reliant on the drug the more his work suffered. Many have argued that for an analysis of Coleridge’s life it must be looked at against the background of his opium usage. To help cure his addition his friend Joseph Adams put him in touch with a doctor James Gillman whose household Coleridge lived with for the rest of his life.
Although Gillman was never able to fully cure Coleridge of his addition he was able to bring it under greater control. On many occasions when Coleridge was away from the Gillman household he fell back into excessive opium use and despite Gillman’s care Coleridge was overcome with lung and heart problems. He died at the age of 61.
PABLO PICASSO, 1881 – 1973
Pablo Picasso was a Spanish painter, sculptor, stage designer, poet and playwright known as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century who co-founded the Cubist movement and the invention of constructed sculpture. Picasso is another artist who had an involvement with opium but only for a short period of his life. He is known to have smoked opium three times a week between the summers of 1904 – 1908. According to his biographer John Richardson, it was not a belief in the ‘derangement of the senses’ but an innate curiosity that made Picasso try drugs. In June 1908, Picasso renounced opium; one of the believed reasons was because he was extremely shocked by his drug confused housemate’s suicide.
JEAN COCTEAU, 1889 – 1963
Jean Cocteau was a French poet, novelist, dramatist, playwright, artist and filmmaker. Some of his work included his novel Les Enfants Terribles, and the films Blood of a Poet and Les Parents Terribles. The young death of Raymond Radiguet a close friend of Cocteau’s in 1923 was a severe blow to Cocteau and can be seen as driving him to use opium. Cocteau’s most notable book, Les Enfants Terribles, was written in a week during a strenuous opium weaning. In 1929, Cocteau wrote Opium, The Diary of His Cure which vividly describes his extraordinary experiences while taking opium, the drug which he owed his ‘perfect hours’ and an account of his recovery from his opium addiction. However, Jean Cocteau did relapse in his life to his recurring addiction and is famous for quoting, “The smell of opium is the least stupid smell in the world.”
JANIS JOPLIN, 1943 – 1970
Janis Joplin was an American singer-songwriter and an iconic singer of the 1960’s. Unlike the previously mentioned artists, Joplin’s addiction lay not in the more natural form of opium but the synthetic chemical made from morphine which is still derived from the opium poppy – heroin, a much stronger form of opium. Joplin was a major heroin user and was often forced to cancel shows because she was too heavily under its influence to take the stage.
In 1970 producer Paul A. Rothchild became concerned when Joplin failed to show for a recording session. Upon seeking her he found her dead in her hotel room from an overdose of heroin. The music world and fans were stunned at her death at the age of only 27 especially as only sixteen days earlier another musician had died, rock icon Jimi Hendrix also at age 27 and another user of heroin.