Antonin Artaud and laudanum: the portrait of an addiction to opium

Laudanum. Three syllables for a drug with an almost mythological aura, so much its quotes abound in the fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries. Like those westerns, where many returning cowboys – like John Wayne in his final role, The Last of the Giants (1976) – relieve their chronic wounds by sucking their bottle of laudanum. This alcoholic solution also turns heads a lot in Gothic literature, from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) to Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897), including many short stories by Edgar Poe. So many Anglo-Saxon incarnations. They give the measure of the ravages that this « liquid opium » once caused in the United States or in England, where its circulation was very little controlled. A form of epidemic reminiscent, a century away, of the one still raging across the Atlantic, where opioid analgesics which are now taken in the form (among others) of capsules and tablets have killed more than 100,000 people alone. for the year 2021! Addiction to opiates in France does not reach these frightening levels, neither today nor yesterday, the circulation of laudanum having been much more supervised here. This drug nevertheless consumed a famous French artist, the poet and theater man Antonin Artaud, who died in 1948 at the age of 51. Artaud’s fate fleshes out the laudanum-induced enslavement in the book »In Antonin Artaud’s pharmacopoeia – Sydenham’s laudanum » written by Thierry Lefebvre: the former lecturer in information and communication sciences at the University of Paris Cité, now a member of the Committee for Historical and Scientific Works (CTHS) and director of the Pharmacy History Review answers questions from Science and Future.

« In France, opiate products have been under control since 1845 »

Sciences et Avenir: What is laudanum, and why specify « … of Sydenham »?

Thierry Lefebvre: The term laudanum dates back to the 13th century. It designated a purified and solid opium extract. Its liquid form will come later, to become an emblematic preparation of the 18th and 19th centuries. Its composition was fixed by the English physician Thomas Sydenham towards the end of the 1660s. His « opium wine » was composed of opium, wine from Spain, saffron – which gives it its characteristic color -, powder cinnamon and clove powder. It is prescribed, like opium, poppy or cynaglosse – a flowering plant – before it, to treat patients’ pain. From 1910, the formula of the laudanum changed, since the wine was replaced by 30% alcohol; this is the time when, aware of the deleterious effects of wine, specialists try to remove it from all the products of the pharmacopoeia.

In France, the use of laudanum was very regulated.

This is the big difference with the Anglo-Saxon world. In the United States as in the United Kingdom, the laudanum was very often used, of a use very little regulated and very widespread. Unexpected consequence today: almost all of the illustrations – labels, bottles, etc. – relating to the laudanum found on the web are British or American! In France, on the other hand, opiate products have been under control since 1845 and even more so since 1916. The pharmacist has always guaranteed the non-uncontrolled distribution of therapeutic opium. Also, to obtain laudanum in France at the time of Antonin Artaud, it was complicated, it was necessary to overcome various obstacles. Reading Artaud’s correspondence, we see how much he was confronted with these difficulties; he must have used convenience prescriptions, sometimes fake ones, had doctors and pharmacists in his pocket…

The laudanum was necessary for Artaud to « to balance »

How did Artaud fall into this laudanum addiction?

Antonin Artaud, born in Marseilles in 1896 into a wealthy family, suffered from nervous or neurological problems from his childhood. It is thought to be the scars of an illness he had at a very young age. He goes as far as his baccalaureate, but he does not pass it, hit by repeated seizures. He stays in nursing homes every year. From 1920, the young man will be under the control of doctor Edouard Toulouse, who prescribes low doses of laudanum to soothe him. This doctor runs a review that is both artistic and medical; he takes Artaud as sub-editor. This puts him in the stirrup for writing, which leads him to his important theatrical activity. He even produced his own pieces at the end of the 1920s.

How was he able to reconcile his illness with artistic and cultural production?

This is due to the use of drugs. In his letters, he makes it clear that he cannot do this or that work, for example a film that he considers unworthy of his artistic aspirations, without having taken his dose of opium. He says it’s what allows him to « balance » (in the cinema, the most notorious films in which Antonin Artaud played are The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928, with Renée Falconetti and Napoleon by Abel Gance, in 1927, Ed). Today, the situation would be different. There are opiate substitutes that provide stability, Artaud would have had a longer career. But could she have been so productive?

Thierry Lefebvre's book, \

« In the pharmacopoeia of Antonin Artaud – The laudanum of Sydenham », by Thierry Lefebvre, Le Manuscrit editions, Knowledge collection, 144 pages, 14.90 euros.

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