In prologues, epilogues, songs and introductions, ballad operas appealed to, and helped construct, an imagined community of like-minded Britons. Music was the chief means of appeal, and was falsely advertised as ‘Old Ballad Tunes’ to substantiate the genre’s claim to cultural authenticity. By fusing English words with so-called British song, ballad opera playwrights claimed also to make manifest qualities which allegedly were inherent to the nation, such as rationality, wit, and the desire for self-improvement.
Ballad operas were also an important mouthpiece for government critics. Although John Gay’s and Henry Fielding’s attacks on Prime Minister Robert Walpole have been well-researched, scholars have yet to recognize that ballad operas were an important medium of political dissent. In particular, the Excise Tax of 1733 initiated a wave of ballad operas whose sharp criticisms may have been difficult to publish elsewhere. Ballad operas were also favoured for scurrilously commenting on court politics and liaisons. Works of this category were usually performed in fringe theatres and never published, or were published without the intention of being mounted on stage.
Ballad opera airs were especially effective in transmitting social protest or scandal. The songs of ballad opera were didactic, designed to comment about the action, rather than carry the action forward. Verses articulated public resentment, and the familiarity of the airs’ tunes impressed this message on audience members. Tunes, such as Henry Purcell’s ‘Britons Strike Home’, could rally audiences around specific causes, as could star singers such as Catherine Clive and John Beard.