The action begins when two servants, Fag and Thomas, run into one another on the street in the town of Bath. Fag is surprised to see Thomas, but Thomas explains that his ever-impulsive master, Sir Anthony Absolute, decided on the spur of the moment to bring his entire family to town from the countryside. Thomas asks after Sir Anthony’s son and Fag’s master, Captain Absolute, but Fag surprises Thomas by saying he (Fag) now works for someone named Ensign Beverley. Fag then explains that Ensign Beverley is really the same person as Absolute, which confuses Thomas even more.
The play straightaway displays its dominant feature by beginning with a deception about a deception. Fag has not changed employers, his employer has taken on a false identity, but because he has pretentions to being a man of the world, he draws out his explanation and plays a little joke on the more straightforward Thomas, when he cryptically says that Ensign Beverley and Captain Absolute are two halves of the same man.
Fag explains further: Absolute has taken on the false identity of Ensign Beverley for the sake of love. When Thomas wonders why Absolute, who is a captain, would masquerade as someone of lower rank in the army, Fag explains that the lady whom Absolute loves prefers a poor man to a rich one. Thomas asks if she is rich herself, and learns that she is, and fabulously so. Fag says that she returns Absolute’s affections in his character of Beverley, and that her name is Lydia Languish.
The false identity has been taken on in aid of Absolute’s pursuit of courtship, although neither servant understands Lydia’s odd taste for a poor suitor. Thomas asks first whether Lydia is rich, and then whether she loves Absolute, this serving as a stand-in for Absolute’s father, who will prioritize wealth in a potential match for his son.
Thomas professes good wishes for the young couple’s future, and asks what there is to do in Bath. Fag invites Thomas to meet him and another servant that night. They then discuss changing fashions for hairstyles: wearing wigs has gone out of style and none of the London carriage drivers “of any degree of ton” will be caught wearing one, but Thomas does not want to give his up. Then the two men spot Absolute and Lucy, Lydia Languish’s maid. Thomas notices that Absolute is paying Lucy money. Meanwhile, Fag rushes off to tell Absolute that his father (Sir Anthony) has come to town.
The more fashionable but also more pretentious Fag is passionately invested in keeping up-to-date with the latest hairstyles. This is linked to his pretentious use of language, because when he makes his case for disposing of wigs, he pronounces the word “tone” in the French fashion. This may impress the provincial Thomas, but it suggests that Fag’s French may be limited to words that sound like their English-language equivalents.