Review: ‘Empty Theatre’ by Jac Jemc

empty theatre

Jac Jemc’s Empty Theatre takes a satirical, intentionally offhand look at the lives of two cousins, King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria. Conjuring feelings of hollowness and acute performativity, the title at once opens and shuts the doors on a reality too far removed from our own to seem genuine. 

Jemc acknowledges this openly, stating in the Acknowledgments that “this book could be seen as a fiction based on many personal fictions.” And so, a tale of impaired humanity unfolds; far more pressing and engaging than we’d like to admit, especially since Jemc’s protagonists come across as both deeply lost and wicked.

Their vindictiveness stems, in part, from their privilege and lack of control; two states that continue to defy our linear experience of time.

What’s more, by directly addressing the reader, the author succeeds in heightening the mystification surrounding the cousins’ deaths. That, and the very impossibility of placing Ludwig’s demise at the end of a steady, keenly felt narrative. 

As a boy, he’s disciplined for his sensitivity and taught to treat cruelty as the refraction of misplaced emotion. It’s no wonder that we nod in understanding when he gets intoxicated by the immaterial, or when he’s ruled by “a violence of feeling.”

Ludwig’s inaptness as a ruler is assumed from the start. And, though demonstrated on many occasions, it’s a truth that is never at risk of being challenged. This, in turn, allows for a fable-like mode of storytelling to capture a tragedy that’s at once beguiling and profoundly unnerving. 

Meanwhile, Empty Theatre’s poetic vision continually finds ways of tugging on the reader’s fascination, “Otto Friedrich Wilhelm has just emerged from her, like the pit pulled from a cherry.” Written in the present tense, with great immediacy and honed perception, the text never once fails to convey the satiric appeal of its tongue-in-cheek angle.

Personality and character dictate the narration, and the effect is instantly engaging. As are the morsels of the most digestible scenes from a life largely unlived, leaving us gliding through history with the kind of impassivity with which we inherently treat the present moment.

As a result, we see that Empty Theatre is written with great self-awareness. Not quite metatextual, the novel nevertheless strips itself of any pretension, allowing the complexity within to propel the exterior.

What’s more, to match the weight of the monarchs on the page, the narration pads its sides with layers of snark, introducing flavor to an already potent concoction,

“All hail Lola, Queen of gaslight, Countess of nothing.”

Similarly, Jemc injects every figure with a duality of expression, burdening them with metacognition. What we get as a result is not only deep existential turmoil, but the kind of idiosyncrasy that strays into the realm of skewed mental health. 

We see this most acutely in Ludwig’s recognition of his brother’s condition, and the remorse he feels for sequestering Otto away. But it’s also apparent in Sisi’s grasp of her hereditary depression, as well as aunt Alexandra’s conviction that her “corset would not fit around the piano caged insider her ribs.”

To fend off the quiet threats of the world they inhabit, Ludwig and Sisi plunge into tense interrelational dynamics, terse words, and elaborate schemes; all at a whiplash pace. Consequently, though malevolent antics are constantly at play, they’re the equivalent of a frightened dog’s bark, revealing the tenderness with which humanity must grapple.

And since Empty Theatre‘s narrative is embalmed in the present, emotion is similarly held in its most succinct, penetrative form. Sisi’s grief over the loss of her child materializes as a frenzy of rage, depression, and mania. The moment feels suffocating because there’s no way to claw past it, exposing the planes of Jemc’s skillful design.

Still, much of the depth we reach in our lifetimes is the direct result of years of contemplation. Stuck in the present as we are in Empty Theatre, the narrator’s treatment of various complexities can seem somewhat brisk.

Especially the first portion of the novel, largely devoted to the whims of youth, can feel like skipping stones and chasing the short-lived ripples. And yet, this is the cost of a moment of heightened sensation, much like in the real world.

And so, as they age and face new constraints, Ludwig and Sisi turn a little whiny, a little self-indulgent, “I do all these absurd things because I’m forbidden from doing what I truly want to do.” But, again, this bareness of character rings more sincere than tiresome.

The ensuing curtness of expression seems redolent of the theatre, specifically the stage on which they act out their performative tasks as rulers,

“Ludwig slumps, growls, exits.”

Distance and aestheticism play a major role in this reality, “They are allowed to remain blindly committed to the idea of each other, rather than each other’s actuality.” It’s no surprise that caprice mixes with woe, and that the result of this blend is magnified by a satirical saturation of the heart.

When Richard Hornig enters Ludwig’s life, a discomfiting power play ensues, made both charming by their shared infatuation, and tragic by the inevitability of their circumstances,

“Ludwig knows there is no way around the fact that love will never be easy for him. He will always be cornered by his desire.”

In fact, both Ludwig and Sisi seem thwarted by their desires; Sisi’s for absolute independence, Ludwig’s for a love made impossible by the social and religious climate of the times. As a result, both cope by turning to casual cruelty, “A servant brings Ludwig tea that is too hot. He demands she be skinned alive.”

But even this flippancy, lodged firmly in the verbal sphere, manages to be offset by that most recognizable of human facets — vulnerability. That’s where Empty Theatre manages to convey the alienation and claustrophobia that inform Ludwig and Sisi’s reality.

Interestingly, this is also where a contrast is drawn between their separate experiences. Namely, Sisi’s superficiality seems all the more jarring when it follows on the heels of a man reduced to sobs by the fear ground into him by his longings.

So, to guide the contemporary reader, an element of judgment seeps through the narration, making Empty Theatre’s figureheads appear more leveled, “What doesn’t occur to her is that she could find a way to be happy with what she has, that instead of changing her life, she might change her mind.” But, while affirming, this shrewdness creates a certain fork in our perception,

“The gymnastics of privacy grow more pliant. Sanity begins to look insane.”

The private and public spheres battle for dominance, forming a constant, grating source of tension. Consequently, what at first glance seemed like an array of colorful yet cursory vignettes soon morphs into a tightly knit, ever-growing tragedy.

The personal — and emotional — ends up at the forefront of Empty Theatre, quickly consuming every other plane in sight to a wonderful, if woeful, effect. Similarly, where Ludwig’s death is concerned, a mystery slips in, dominating an increasingly disquieting narrative.

Then, at just the right moment, Jemc’s roots in horror begin to show through, “What they see, before the body slips from their grasp, are the whites of [his] eyes, his mouth stretched into a howl.” The end result is, simply put, thrilling.


Publication date: February 21, 2023 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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