Biff Monologue (Act Two) | Death of a Salesman Script and Analysis

Biff Monologue (Act Two)

Written by on | Monologues Unpacked

Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller is one of the greatest plays of all time. Despite being close to a century old, it tackles the American Dream peerlessly—warning against belief and trust in a system that chews men up and spits them out. It is just as relevant on the day you read this article as it was when it was first written. The titular salesman, Willy Loman, is a towering and tragic figure in the narrative that tells his downfall. But our focus, today, is on his eldest son and last great hope Biff: and his last-ditch attempt to shake his father out of his delusions.

In this article, we examine the Biff monologue from Act Two of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. We cover the context of the speech, the text itself and give information as to how this monologue might best be considered and performed by an actor. As the Biff monologue is a popular speech for drama school auditions and acting classes, it is an important piece to learn and comprehend for any actor.

This the first of our Monologues Unpacked series to tackle a non-Shakespearean piece. Be sure to follow the link to the full collection, to gain information on every conceivable Shakespeare speech you might ever encounter in your studies or career. For now, let’s settle down with this masterpiece of American writing…

Context

Willy Loman is a travelling salesman who finds success and stability ever out of reach. In the action of the play, we witness a tragic series of events that pushes him towards despair, including the loss of his job and his proud refusal of another position from a friend. Adding further pressure to his life is the presence of his eldest son Biff, who has similarly failed at recent business deals and has returned home. Biff had once been a champion of his father, but found himself disillusioned after visiting Willy unannounced in Boston and catching him in the midst of an extra-marital affair. Biff is broken by this, but keeps his father’s secret.

This speech takes place outside the family home, following a disastrous dinner Biff had with his younger brother Happy and their father. Biff tried to tell his father about his latest business failure, and Willy responded by slapping him and admonishing him. The play slips into a flashback to Biff’s visit in Boston—as if to signify Willy’s growing sense of guilt and shame.

Original Text

Note: while this speech is presented as an unbroken monologue, it is actually drawn from a heated exchange between Biff Loman and his father Willy. The majority of the text is spoken as a monologue, but versions of this speech may very depending on the particulars of each edit. This version is StageMilk’s own, as available through our Scene Club membership.

BIFF:
Now hear this, Willy, this is me. You know why I had no address for three months? I stole a suit in Kansas City and I was jailed. I stole myself out of every good job since high school. And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That’s whose fault it is! It’s goddamn time you heard that! I had to be boss big shot in two weeks, and I’m through with it! Willy! I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today. And suddenly I stopped, you hear me? And in the middle of that office building, do you hear this? I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw- the sky. I saw the things that I love in the world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can’t I say that, Willy? Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you! I am not a leader of me, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash-can like all the rest of them! I’m a dollar an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and couldn’t raise it! A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home! Pop, I’m nothing! I’m nothing, Pop. Can’t you understand that? There’s no spite in it any more. I’m just what I am, that’s all. Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phoney dream and burn it before something happens?

Unfamiliar Language

As with any new monologue, begin by identifying and defining any unfamiliar words or phrases. Biff will give you a lot less grief than, say, Hamlet, but there are still a few terms that might be strange.

Blew me so full of hot air: To build him up with praise.
Contemptuous: Showing hatred, scorn, disapproval.
Dime a dozen: Unremarkable, common.
Drummer: Archaic term for a travelling salesman. In this context it might also refer to Willy’s constant (rhythmic) work at his business.
Ash-can: American slang for rubbish bin.
Dollar an hour/Buck an hour: Similar to “dime a dozen”, unremarkable.
Phoney: Fake.

Notes on Performance

To help you navigate performing this piece, we’ve included some notes on performance, listed out in the five points below:

#1 Context

The first thing you need to do to perform this piece properly is read the play. This speech occurs at a crisis point for each party involved, and it is vital that you understand the significance of this moment within its proper context. This will help you establish the timeline of Biff’s story, as well as explain details such as the pen—an impulsive theft by Biff following a failed job interview.

#2 Objective

The objective of Biff in this scene is to wake his father up and have him see reason. It’s a lofty thing for Biff to strive for, which is exciting for an audience and a challenge for an actor. But it can also result in some fairly vague choices when navigating the scene. Try adding a goal to this speech: something concrete you want Willy to do which will signify your objective is complete: “My objective is for Biff to wake Willy up and have him see reason, and I’ll know I’ve done this when I achieve the goal of getting him to hug me.”

#3 Scene Partner

Who is Biff talking to? Well, sure, it’s his father Willy. But take the time to interrogate this relationship, especially in the context of the story. The Willy before Biff is very different to the hero from his childhood: a delusional failure, a cheat on his mother who has beaten his son out of his own desperation. Consider drawing a character relationship map to plot the complexities of this dynamic; it’s also important to consider who has the greater status in this scene.

Never forget that a monologue is still a conversation—it just so happens that one character has all the words. Beneath that, in the silences, in the pauses, there is still very much a back-and-forth occurring. Note how many times Biff ‘checks in’ with his father: “Now hear this…” “Do you hear this?” “Do you gather my meaning?” Don’t think about moving on until you are certain Willy has heard you.

#4 How Does Biff Feel?

A lot of the time, this piece is performed as angry and heartbroken. And this is entirely valid, given all Biff has been through. But don’t discredit the way your character might actually feel some relief from getting all of this off his chest. After a near-lifetime of deception and self-delusion, Biff and Willy are having a genuinely honest moment. And even the worst secrets shared feel better than being kept.

#5 Where Does Biff End Up?

This is good advice for monologues in general, but where does Biff end up at the end of the speech? What’s changed for him, for Willy? And what does the audience know? A good scene in any script is a point of no return: a moment when characters say something and can’t come back from it, their relationship forever affected.

Relate this point to the dynamic between you and your scene partner. Biff and Willy’s dynamic is radically altered by this exchange. It’s undeniably tough for a child to realise their father is fallible—human, capable of failure and mistakes—but it’s also a moment of a personal growth. Might a part of Biff feel better that this confrontation has happened?

Biff Monologue Audition Piece

This speech is a popular choice for drama school auditions and acting classes. You may have looked it up and found this article for this exact reason. If so, here’s a few things to remember about the piece to help. First of all, keep communicating. Keep Willy in your mind as you speak the words, and imagine him in the room: this will help you anchor your eyeline and keep the piece from becoming to fraught and chaotic. While we’re on the subject: don’t let the emotions take over. If you’re lucky enough to be in the room when other auditionees are delivering this piece, you’re going to see a lot of angst and tears. Resist the temptation to let go; Biff knows this isn’t the way to reach Willy and change his mind.

Finally, and this is a bit of a re-tread from our performance notes, but know the play. Know the text, understand the context, the story, the meaning behind the words. When you are auditioning for a drama school, you’re not actually being seen as an actor. You’re being auditioned as a student. So be a good student: be hungry for knowledge and information, and show the panel that you’ve taken the time to explore the text and bring it to life.

Conclusion

So there you have it: our very first Monologues Unpacked to tiptoe beyond Shakespeare! Whether you’re prepping this piece for drama school, an acting class or simply using it to practice your craft … enjoy it. Enjoy the words Miller has so expertly crafted, and enjoy bringing a little strength and closure to Biff’s fraught relationship with his dad. It’s the very least they both deserve.

Good luck!

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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