The scene, as in almost every following scene, is Lovewit’s house. The play opens with a blazing argument between Subtle and Face, which Dol Common is trying desperately to calm. The reason for the argument is not entirely clear, but the basic point is that both Subtle and Face feel the superior conman and the most important in the success of their “business”; neither feels duly appreciated by the other. Subtle claims that he is responsible for Face being in the position he is in—only a short time ago, he tells him, he was only the “good / Honest, plain, livery-three-pound-thrum” (a servant whose clothing is very cheaply made) who worked in his master’s house. Subtle claims that he has taught Face everything he knows, and that Face should therefore be grateful—without Subtle, he still would have been a mere housekeeper.
Face claims, conversely, that Subtle’s status as the titular “Alchemist” is dependent on Face’s bringing in the gulls to be gulled. Furthermore, Face claims that he got Subtle sufficient credit to buy the paraphernalia of alchemy, and that Face built him the furnace. Subtle retaliates by restating that it is only through his own alchemical expertise that Face has learned how to be a conman. Each believes that the other would be nothing without him.
Face threatens to publish the details of Subtle’s trickeries at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and he claims that they are so manifold that it would be plausible for him to write a book. His final threat is that he will have Subtle arrested under the “statute of sorcery.”
Dol eventually breaks up the argument, bringing the two down to earth by reminding Face that his word will not be taken by anyone, and likewise taking Subtle down a peg or two. She forces him to acknowledge that she and Face both play their parts in the cons; the venture is “tripartite.” She then forces the two conmen to swear that they will “labor, kindly, in the common work” which they do, rather unwillingly. They then praise Dol as “Dol Singular” (meaning that she is the best of all), only to be interrupted by the bell ringing.
Subtle worries initially that it will be the master, Lovewit, at the door, but Face gives us the key information that he will not return until the plague has left London. He will send an order to “air” the house before his return—the conmen should have, according to Face, a safe two weeks.
Dol looks out of the window to see who has rung the bell, and it is Dapper, a “fine young quodling” whom Face met in the Dagger Inn in Holborn last night. There is a hurried costume change as Subtle gets “his robes” on, and Face finishes the scene by beginning the con, shouting (so that Dapper hears) to Subtle as if he is about to leave the house, as Dapper has not yet appeared.
Jonson’s play observes, or at least nearly observes, Aristotle’s classical unities. The play takes place, except for the one scene outside the house, in the same room in Lovewit’s house. It happens, or can be staged so as to happen, in chronological order, and its events take place over one day. The events of the play take about as long as the play takes in performance. And all attention remains on the story of the conmen and their cons.
The play’s opening immediately plunges the audience into an argument which has no prequel. We do not know its characters, its origins, or its location–until the scene reveals them. There is no time for the audience to question the believability of what is going on; they immediately have to start to working out what is going on. This is one of the things that has led to Jonson’s reputation as a particularly difficult writer, a reputation not due solely to the age of the play. Jonson in this early part of the play purposely makes things difficult.
The meta-theatricality of the play is also immediately evident. The argument at the start of the play is all about which character–the one playing “Alchemist” or the one playing “Captain”–is the most convincing and important, an appropriate argument for the beginning of a stage play, particularly when one realizes that Subtle and Face are not an Alchemist and a Captain but a pair of conmen. The conmen seem almost too convinced by their own performances. Face has to be reminded that he, in fact, has no credibility as a mangy captain to turn the world against Subtle, and Subtle seems oddly convinced about his own extensive knowledge of alchemy.
Does Subtle actually know any alchemy? He certainly, as we see later, knows some alchemical theory, which he will use to confound Mammon. The play never answers the question of how much Subtle knows about alchemy. Nor does Jonson ever show us the “furnace” which Face claims to have built in this scene. Even if it might exist, for the audience it does not. Like the gulls, we are encouraged to buy into “nothing”–we might choose to believe that the furnace is indeed in the next room, but really it is just the backstage.
Dapper’s appearance at the door and the ring of the bell are the first of many moments when Jonson drives the plot forward with interruptions. The doorbell is a fantastically useful way of instantly introducing a new complication. In just a few lines, Subtle and Face must undergo costume changes to prepare for the first con. After the explosive opening argument about believability, the character changes enact literally what the argument itself has just achieved theatrically: convincing an audience.