Addiction and Creativity in Needles and Opium

By Shannon Stockwell 

In Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium—running through April 23 at The Geary Theater—we are confronted with a familiar image: a drug-addicted artist. But is there a connection between addiction and creativity?

Olivier Normand as Jean Cocteau in Needles and Opium. Photo by Tristram Kenton.
Many people initially assume that artists use drugs to enhance their creative abilities. Scientifically, there is some truth to this: drugs alter a person’s state of mind, leading them to stumble upon ideas they may not have developed while sober. But these substances can also severely inhibit a person’s ability to act on those new ideas. And sometimes, it turns out that the drug does nothing at all.

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis knew that drugs wouldn’t increase his creative capacity when he increasingly began using heroin in 1949. “I wasn’t never into that trip that if you shot heroin you might be able to play like Bird [Charlie Parker],” he says in his autobiography. He started using the drug because of the depression he felt upon returning to America following his trip to Paris in 1949; his music wasn’t appreciated in the US like it had been in France. And he missed Juliette Gréco, the singer he had fallen in love with in Europe. Heroin wreaked havoc on his creativity, his body, and his happiness. It wasn’t until he detoxed in 1954 that his joy returned, and with it, his creativity.

Filmmaker and artist Jean Cocteau’s addiction initially had nothing to do with his art. He starting using opium to numb the pain he suffered after the death of Raymond Radiguet, the object of his affections. He grew to love opium, and yet even in his book Opium: The Diary of His Cure, in which he espoused the wonders of opium, he rarely mentioned that he felt it enhanced his creativity. In fact, says biographer Claude Arnaud, it had the opposite effect; it rendered him lethargic, so he didn’t feel the fiery need to create that he experienced while sober.

The connection between addiction and creativity has not been studied with conclusive results. When all is said and done, the causes of addiction are as varied as addicts themselves. Some artists may use drugs because they erroneously believe that they enhance creativity. Some may turn to substances to ease the mental stress that comes with the territory of being an artist.

No matter what the cause, addicted artists have complicated relationships with their substances of choice. Cocteau and Davis loved the way that drugs made them feel at first, but addiction took its toll on their happiness, their wellbeing, and their work. What is important to remember is that there is always something behind addiction, and if this is never addressed, the addiction will not go away. As Cocteau said in Opium, “If you hear someone say: ‘X . . . has killed himself smoking opium,’ you should know that it is impossible, and that this death conceals something else.”

Needles and Opium runs through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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