Mixed-media on paper
Andreas Grassl (born 25 October 1984) is a German man found in England in April 2005, who remained unidentified for a long time due to his refusal to speak, communicating instead through drawing and playing the piano. During the over four months that passed until he revealed his identity, the mysterious story spawned media attention and speculation across the world, dubbing him the Piano Man.
When Grassl was picked up by police on 7 April 2005, he was wandering the streets in Sheerness, Kent, in England, wearing a soaking wet suit and tie, and he did not answer any questions. Remaining silent, he was presented a pen and paper by Medway Maritime Hospital staff in the hope he would write his name. Instead, he drew a detailed sketch of a grand piano. When they first brought him to a piano, he reportedly played music from various genres (ranging from classical music byTchaikovsky to pop music by The Beatles) non-stop for four hours, and then was taken away by the hospital staff.
For several months, Grassl was interned in a secure mental health unit in north Kent while he was being treated and evaluated. Interpreters were unable to discover his origin. Orchestras around Europe were contacted in a bid to trace his identity.
The story was broken when a social worker contacted the Daily Mail for help. A local photographer Mike Gunnill was commissioned to take photographs. This proved difficult at first but Gunnill in the end managed to photograph Grassl when he left the hospital for his usual daily walk around the grounds. All this was arranged by the social worker. While waiting, the social worker gave the photographer the ” mystery man’s ” sketch book. The only sketch worth copying was a large image of a grand piano. The rest of the book were just lines and doodles, despite comments later there was no flag image in the book. From the sketch of the grand piano, the Daily Mail started calling him “piano man”. Despite having the story first the Daily Mail didn’t use it until later. Executives at Associated Newspapers thought he was an ” asylum seeker” who had arrived in Kent. Two weeks later the photographer was told the story would not be used by the Daily Mail and he was free to use the images as he wished. The Mail-on-Sunday used a small image on the front page, but this was removed after the first three editions. This was enough to start a media storm over ” Piano Man “.
Grassl’s picture was posted on the UK charity Missing People‘s website (formerly the National Missing Persons Helpline). On 18 May 2005, a Polish man working as a mime artist in Rome approached Italian police officers, believing the Piano Man to be a French busker called Steven Villa Masson. However, the British newspaperThe Independent tracked down Masson to his home in France, thus ruling out this lead.
Italian television stations showed footage of a concert pianist with a resemblance to the Piano Man—the pictures were filmed at an instrument fair in Rimini five years earlier. Observers found his hair different, but his nose and facial structure very similar. He also stayed silent. British tabloids also suggested a link to a man last seen in Canada two years previously, Sywald Skeid (then known as Philip Staufen), who had wandered into a Toronto emergency department apparently suffering from amnesia. His true identity was revealed in a GQ magazine article as in fact Sywald Skeid.
BBC News reported on 29 May 2005 that a Czech musician called Klaudius Kryšpín, the drummer of a Czech rock band Pražský výběr (“Prague Selection”), had rung the helpline, offering information that Piano Man might be a pianist called Tomáš Strnad, who along with Kryšpín was a member of the tribute band Ropotamoin the 1980s. Also, Klaudius Kryšpín’s twin brother Richard who lives in Columbus, Ohio, USA confirmed that Piano Man had a striking resemblance to Strnad. Another person who argued that Strnad might have been Piano Man was Michael Kocáb, the singer of Pražský výběr and a former adviser of Václav Havel. A problem with this theory was that Kocáb argued that he met Strnad on 10 April 2005 near Prague (three days after the Piano Man was found in England). Even though the West Kent NHS Trust described this as a “promising lead” and reportedly planned to bring in a Czech interpreter, this theory (like the theory that it was Steven Villa Masson, above) was dashed when Tomáš Strnad was found and interviewed on Czech TV.
On 24 June 2005, Susanne Schlippe Steffensen (Dansk Folkeparti), a local council member of the Danish municipality of Karlebo, near Copenhagen, made a claim on Danish TV 2/Lorry, that the Piano Man was in fact her Algerian-born husband. Steffensen had not seen her husband since February, when he had travelled to Algeria to visit his sick mother. “He has lost 20 kilos and bleached his hair, but I can see in his eyes that it is him. I will never be wrong when I see those eyes”, she said to TV 2/Lorry. Steffensen’s theory was that her husband had travelled to England due to a conflict with his family. According to Steffensen the family was unhappy with the fact that he was married to a western woman. “I think he has fled for his life. He has previously received death threats,” said Steffensen. She went to England to meet her claimed husband, but according to Steffensen the hospital did not allow her to meet him.
On 2 July 2005, BBC News reported that the Piano Man, when shown a map, pointed to Oslo, the capital of Norway. A Norwegian-speaking person was brought in to open communications. According to the report the Piano Man seemed more responsive when Norwegian was spoken even though he remained unable or unwilling to speak. The theory was further strengthened by claims that a Norwegian vessel was in the area at the time the man was discovered.
Between 4 July and 6 July, students from Norway said they knew the man in question as an exchange student from Ireland. These beliefs and possible leads were dashed when Norwegian papers were able to contact the man who the Piano Man was thought to be.
Diagnoses of his condition initially focused on post-traumatic stress disorder but it was at the time thought he might be an autistic savant. Autistic savants can display extraordinary but highly specific talents, while at the same time remaining withdrawn or uncommunicative to the point of constant silence. The trust refused to officially comment on the young man’s treatment beyond saying that his physical health remained good, but it was understood he was showing increasing signs of a rapport with a small number of trusted caregivers.
On 22 August, the British tabloid newspaper The Mirror reported that the Piano Man had finally broken his silence after more than four months, and that he had been exposed as a hoax. Additionally, the Mirror’s source claimed that he did not play the piano properly, but “just kept tapping one key continuously.” Hospital staff have maintained that his abilities were not exaggerated.
The Mirror article claimed that the Piano Man had told the medical staff that he was a gay German man, who had come to Britain on a Eurostar train after losing his job in Paris. According to the newspaper’s source, the man claimed that he had been planning to commit suicide when he was discovered on the beach in Sheerness, that he did not talk to the police due to his distressed state, and that he then continued to act mute. The unnamed source also suggested that the Piano Man used to work with the mentally ill, and thus was able to mimic their behaviour, thereby fooling the hospital staff. According to the tabloids, he has been flown back to Germany where his father (a farmer) and his two sisters live.
Later the same day the BBC reported that the German foreign ministry had confirmed that the man was a 20-year-old Bavarian who had flown home on 20 August. The German embassy in London confirmed that they had been contacted by the Little Brook Hospital, confirmed the man’s identity and provided him with replacement travel documents.
Following the media reports, the West Kent NHS and Social Care Trust issued a statement stating that the man was no longer in the care of the trust, that he had been “discharged from [their] care following a marked improvement in his condition,” and that their “involvement with this man has now ceased and will not be resuming at any stage.” The statement also expressed that no further information was to be released.
In a follow-up to the story on 24 August, The Mirror named the man as Andreas Grassl and published an interview with his parents, farmers in Prosdorf, a village belonging to Waldmünchen in the Cham district of the Upper Palatinate in eastern Bavaria. According to the interview, their son had upon his return told them that he had “no idea what happened to me. I just suddenly woke up and realised who I was.” Grassl’s father expressed anger with some allegations made in the originalMirror article, in particular the suggestions that his son’s behaviour during treatment was not genuine. “I know he would never make something like this up,” the father said. He denied that his son was gay, and told the newspaper that his son in fact was an accomplished piano player, albeit not to a professional standard. Grassl’s lawyer said he might have experienced a psychotic episode.
After working with disabled people in Saarbrücken, Grassl apparently told his parents that he intended to leave to study in France. After that, his parents had not been able to reach him. They had reported him missing, but they did not see nor recognize the pictures of their son that were distributed around the world.
In October 2014, AllthePigs Theatre Company announced that they were writing a play based on the theories and events that led to the ‘Piano Man’ at the New Diorama in London