The princess who swallowed a glass piano

The Glass Piano is a wonderful BBC Radio 3 programme about Princess Alexandra of Bavaria who thought she had swallowed a glass piano.

The programme was created by writer and poet Deborah Levy who “considers the true story of Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria, 1826-1875 who at the age of 23 was observed awkwardly walking sideways down the corridors of her family palace. When questioned by her worried royal parents, she announced that she had swallowed a grand glass piano.”

As we’ve discussed previously, glass delusions were quite regularly reported by physicians in the 19th century but are now seemingly extinct in a curious cultural shift in madness.

People who experienced the delusion believed that their body was entirely, or in part, made of glass

The Glass Piano is a curious blend between a drama and documentary that recounts the case of Princess Alexandra and explores the history of this curious conviction.

It has some fantastic insights from historian of psychiatry Erin Sullivan, a trauma specialist, and rather more unpredictably from psychoanalyst Susie Orbach who makes some genuinely insightful comments while at other times sounding like she’s been smoking a glass pipe:

“Certainly she would not have walked like a princess because in order to bear a piano inside of her she would have had to had her legs quite far apart. We want to think Freud because its that moment in history where Freud discovers that we’re all sexual beings. So you could say that her legs are far apart for that reason.”

You could indeed.

I have to say, however, that these somewhat whimsical comments are actually in the spirit of the piece, which mixes conjecture with solid historical research, original musical and drama.

Unfortunately, the audio for the piece was only available for a week but an mp3 of the programme has mysteriously found its way online which you can get here.

Link to programme information on BBC site.
Link to download / streaming of mp3.

3 thoughts on “The princess who swallowed a glass piano”

  1. Wow. I haven’t yet checked out the link (sorry) but does this mean that delusions could be determined by the culture at any given time, or simply that brain disorders have changed like any other disease?

  2. When we consider Freud, we must of course be aware of how much his ideas were unproven, depending on “taking in each other’s washing” for plausibility.

    But there’s another aspect. Wittgenstein said that Freud really provided “a notation,” that is, a re-describing of things (with language that carried various sorts of emotional-intellectual attractiveness, more than logic).

    A “notation” can let us attend to things we’d otherwise ignore. I’ve lived long enough to have memories of a more-sexually-repressed era (born in 1940), and I have empathetic hints of what preceded my own times. But can any of us really FEEL what sexuality was like when Freud formed his first “Freudian” ideas? I can tell you that in 19th century literature, read closely, you can see that the meerest HINT of something sexual was electric! And yes, you find such hints–“adults only” understanding involved, and probably not all adults. (For an instructive parallel: the 1930s film “Reefer Madness” has for decades been laughed-at for its depictions of pot-smokers. But when you look at the Production Code, forced on the movie industry by the Legion of Decency and other religious groups, you see that the drug alarmism was a thin veil allowing just-over-the-strictest-line depictions of human sexuality in that “independent” movie, never shown in a “first run” theatre, in a time when MARRIED couples were never to be shown in the same bed! Yeah, “Reefer Madness” was a titilating, sexy film–for its era, in America.)

    So maybe it isn’t so crazy to think that the very unusual, “unallowed” way Princess Alexandra walked might have carried/displayed sexual charge. And the emergence of the repressed. (A generation later, Alice Roosevelt–Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter–took great care not to let her hair-do fall down in any circumstance involving a young man, because of the incandescent reaction from her elders to such a sign of wanton behaviour.)

    Maybe it’s time cut Freud, & Freudians, some carefully delineated slack.

  3. Fascinating. This reminds me of Carl Sagan’s discussion (in “The Demon-Haunted World” 1995) of ‘alien abduction’ reports as a cultural phenomena/delusion which he dates from the advent of modern science fiction.

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