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Drama Women Authors

The Breathing Hole

by (author) Colleen Murphy

with Siobhan Arnatsiaq-Murphy

translated by Janet Tamalik McGrath

introduction by Kenn Harper

Playwrights Canada Press
Initial publish date
Nov 2020
Women Authors, Canadian
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2020
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    Nov 2020
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Stories of the Canadian Arctic intersect in this epic five-hundred-year journey led by a one-eared polar bear.

In 1535, Hummiktuq, an Inuk widow, has a strange dream about the future. The next day, she discovers a bear cub floating on ice near a breathing hole. Despite the concerns of her community, she adopts him and names him Angu’ruaq. In 1845, Angu’ruaq and his mate Ukuannuaq wander into a chance meeting between explorers from the Franklin Expedition and Inuit hunters. Later, when the explorers are starving, the bears meet them again. By 2035, entrepreneurs are assessing degrees of melting ice for future opportunities. Angu’ruaq encounters the passengers and crew of a luxury cruise ship as it slinks through the oily waters of the Northwest Passage.

Humorous and dramatic, The Breathing Hole is a profound saga that traces the paths of colonialism and climate change to a deeply moving conclusion.

About the authors

Colleen Murphy is a playwright, filmmaker and librettist, born in 1954 in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, raised in Northern Ontario, and now based in Toronto. Her play Pig Girl won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for Drama as well as the 2014 Carol Bolt Award. The December Man / L'homme de decembre won the 2007 Governor General's Literary Award for Drama, the CAA/Carol Bolt Award and the Enbridge Playwrights Award. Other plays include The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, The Breathing Hole (shortlisted for the Susan Blackburn Prize, U.S. and the Carol Bolt Award), Bright Burning, Armstrong's War, The Goodnight Bird, Beating Heart Cadaver (shortlisted for the 1999 Governor General's Literary Award for Drama) The Piper and Down in Adoration Falling. Libretti include Oksana G., (c. Aaron Gervais) for Tapestry Opera (nominated for seven Dora Mavor Moore Awards), Bring Me The Head Of The President and My Mouth On Your Heart, (c. August Murphy-King) for Tapestry and Toy Piano Composers and Bicycle Opera, respectively. Colleen twice won prizes in the CBC Literary Competition. She is also an award-winning filmmaker and her distinct films have played in festivals around the world.

Colleen has been Writer-in-Residence at four theatres and six Canadian universities and Canadian Playwright-in-Residence at Finborough Theatre in London UK. In 2017, Colleen was awarded a Canada Council New Chapter Grant to write a six-hour play, Geography of Fire / La Furie et sa geographie.

Upcoming: libretto for Fantasma (c. Ian Cusson) for the Canadian Opera Company, Fall 2021; screenplay for Armstrong's War, produced by Solo Productions (Mary-Young Leckie), Fall 2021.


Colleen Murphy's profile page

Siobhan Arnatsiaq-Murphy has performed traditional Inuit drum dance and has worked as a choreographer for over twenty years. She studied ballet and was in the aboriginal modern dance core at the Banff Centre for the Arts with the Aboriginal Dance Project. In her choreography work, Siobhan melds traditional drum dancing with modern dance. She is a graduate of the University of Victoria where she earned her law degree in 2005. She has worked as a lawyer and also taught drum dancing to youth and children. Siobhan lives in Iqaluit and has three wonderful daughters and a stepson.

Siobhan Arnatsiaq-Murphy's profile page

Janet Tamalik McGrath grew up in Nattilik culture in the 1970s. Throughout her childhood and early teen years she lived on the land in the summers with Nattilingmiut families, becoming fluent in the dialect and familiar with traditional values and teachings. After high school she became a regional interpreter-translator for the Nattilik area, innovating on audio presentation modes, assisting in the documentation of Nattilik grammar, and supporting script and font amendments to reflect the dialect’s unique phonemes. Her M.A. thesis was conducted and documented in Nattilingmiut dialect (“Conversations with Nattilingmiut Elders on Conflict and Change: Naalattiarahuarnira” 2004). Currently she works as a language advocate and consultant for Nattilik communities, and was approached by Qaggiavuut Society for assistance with The Breathing Hole.

Janet Tamalik McGrath's profile page

Kenn Harper lived in the Arctic for 50 years in Inuit communities in Canada and in Qaanaaq, Greenland. He has worked as a teacher, historian, linguist, and businessman. He speaks Inuktitut, and has written extensively on Northern history and language. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, a recipient of Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee Medal, and a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog (Denmark). Harper is the author of the bestselling Give Me My Father's Body, with a forthcoming new edition entitled Minik: The New York Eskimo.

Kenn Harper's profile page


  • Nominated, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize
  • Nominated, Carol Bolt Award

Excerpt: The Breathing Hole (by (author) Colleen Murphy; with Siobhan Arnatsiaq-Murphy; translated by Janet Tamalik McGrath; introduction by Kenn Harper)

Franklin: (to Argiaq) Welcome. Oo-noo-coot.

Argiaq stops in front of Franklin, then slowly extends his hand and touches Franklin—and everyone jumps at the same time. Holloway points his rifle, steps in front of Franklin, fires a warning shot into the air, and the two hunters either cover their ears and run, or duck, or scream or all three.

Holloway: Step back—

Franklin: Relieve them of their weapons—

Holloway: Shoot them—

Carter tries to get their harpoons but misses. Argiaq and Paningajak run, then stop.

Argiaq: (to Paningajak) They’re not spirits apparently—

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Keep running—

Holloway: Shoot them—

Carter: Don’t fucking move!

Argiaq: (to Paningajak) I touched one!

Franklin: (to Carter) There will be no swearing!

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Don’t touch!

Carter: Sorry, sir.

Franklin: This isn’t Waterloo—leave them their weapons. If they attack, we’ll shoot, but for now be friendly.

Argiaq: (to Paningajak, re: Franklin’s epaulettes) Look at those shiny things.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) They are dangerous—don’t go any closer—

Franklin: (calls to Argiaq) Oo-noo-coot.

Argiaq takes a reluctant step towards Franklin.

Argiaq: (to Paningajak) They are puny humans, just like us.

Franklin takes another step towards Argiaq.

Franklin: We are a peaceful people.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) These people are not our people—they are very pale and they stink.

Holloway: Are you sure they’re friendly?

Franklin: We’ll find out if you don’t blow them to kingdom come first.

Holloway: If they don’t kill us with their stink first, sir.

Argiaq: (to Franklin) Qilau’mut mumiqpakpihi? [Do you drum dance?]

Franklin: (to the crew) Lay down your weapons.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) They don’t drum dance like we do to create harmony between people . . . don’t get any closer to them.

Holloway: Lay down our—but sir—

Franklin: That’s an order!

The men reluctantly lay down their rifles, then Franklin greets Argiaq with a handshake.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Don’t touch him.

Franklin: Welcome— Too-naa-hoo-geet-check . . . ? [Welcome to you both?]

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Sounds like he said tunngahugittik—that we two should feel the ground beneath us. Yikes, does this mean he might push us over?

Argiaq: (to Paningajak) I think he is trying to say we should lie down to feel the ground, but I’m not sure why.

Argiaq returns the handshake in his fashion while Paningajak, still uncertain, stands back. Franklin points to himself.

Franklin: My name is John Franklin. I’m commander of this expedition. We consist of the HMS Erebus and Terror, and I am properly addressed as “sir.” This is Officer James Holloway, second in command.

Holloway is not keen on shaking hands.

Franklin points to Argiaq.

You, your name uh . . . hoo-now-root-tinhooo-vet?

Argiaq: Argiaq . . . (points to Paningajak) Paningajak.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Ask them if they happened to have seen two bears passing through here.

Franklin: (to Argiaq and Paningajak) . . . And what’s your business, Ud-yuck and Pah-nee-guy-yak . . . (to Holloway) How do you say “what’s your business”?

Holloway: I don’t know their words.

Argiaq: (to Franklin) Takugaluaqpigit nanuuk marruk tahamunngauruk? [Did you happen to see two bears passing through here?]

Franklin: I wish Morshead would get here—he picked up some of their language working with Parry in ’25 when they lost the Fury.

Crew #1 enters carrying a tray with a porcelain teapot, two cups, two saucers, and sugar. He pours a steaming cup of tea each for Franklin and Holloway. Crew #2 hauls in the bulky daguerreotype.

Holloway: Ah, tea—“Tea is the cup of life.”

Paningajak points to the Erebus in the distance.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Look at that big boat.

Argiaq: (to Franklin) Umiarruanaluk angirualuk pigiraqhi? [That big boat. Is it yours?]

Franklin points to the Erebus in the distance.

Franklin: I think that word “oom-yuck” means boat.

Argiaq: (to Paningajak) Maybe these men are the whale hunters my grandfather spoke about.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Ask him.

Carter: They seem keen on our ship.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Let’s go to that boat!

Argiaq: (to Franklin) You . . . Arviqhiuqti? [Are you a whaler?]

Crew #1: (to Franklin) Your tea, sir.

Franklin: Thank you. (to Argiaq) Pardon?

Argiaq: (to Franklin) You . . . Arviqhiuqti?

Franklin: (to Holloway) What’s he trying to say?

Crew #1: (to Franklin) Sugar, sir.

Holloway: He’s saying “you”—“you” as in “you.”

Franklin points to his teacup.

Franklin: (to Argiaq) Tea, gentlemen?

Argiaq: (to Franklin) You . . . (pointing to the Erebus in the distance) Arviqhiurutikaqhi? [Is that a whaling boat?]

Franklin: (to Argiaq) Will you have a cup of tea?

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) They don’t understand.

Holloway: (to Franklin) They don’t understand, sir.

Crew #1: I’ll get more cups and saucers.

Crew #1 exits.

Argiaq pantomimes a whale swimming with his hands and body.

Argiaq: (to Franklin) You.

Franklin: Me . . . my hands . . . swimming. Dear Lord—your hands swimming—

Carter: Fish.

Holloway: Fish, yes! I think he means fish, sir—wonders if we want to fish?

Franklin: No, Argiaq, my work is not fishing—my work is discovery and observation, for I am at heart a scientist.

Argiaq reaches out and points to Franklin’s Knight Commander badge that hangs around his neck as a collared chain.

Argiaq: (in Paningajak’s direction) This is shiny.

Holloway swats Argiaq’s hand away.

Holloway: Don’t touch!

Paningajak is inclined to take a swing at Holloway.

Franklin: No need for that—enough!

Argiaq: (to Paningajak) Angajuq, no no.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Don’t touch them.

Franklin: (to Argiaq) This is of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order, a knighthood bestowed upon me in ’33—Carter, give these fellows some trinkets.

Carter: Here, fellas . . .

Carter takes a box from the trunk, flips it open, and holds it out to the two hunters.

. . . help yourselves.

Argiaq: (to Carter) Hungaurat. [Beads.]

Argiaq and Paningajak help themselves to the trinkets in the wooden box.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Let’s bag what we can! Stuff our pockets!

Carter: (to Paningajak) Hey—only one handful each!

Franklin: They are worthless trinkets, Carter.

Argiaq: (to Paningajak) Our wives will like these—they are like the shimmering surface of fish eggs.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Maybe they have a bowhead whale in their boat.

Franklin: Oom-yuck means boat, doesn’t it? (to Argiaq and Paningajak) Yes, that’s an oom-yuck—the Erebus—a Hecla-class bomb vessel built by the Royal Navy.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Let’s go to the boat and get harvested whale meat.

Argiaq and Paningajak start to leave.

Franklin: Yes, that’s our oom-yuck—370 tons, armed with two mortars and ten—Argiaq, where are you— (to Holloway) Where are they going?

Holloway: (to the hunters) Excuse me, sir.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) I’ll go get our sledge.

Carter: Whoa there, buddy— (stops Argiaq) Don’t walk away when Sir John Franklin is addressing you—

Paningajak spies the dead seal.

Paningajak: A seal!

Argiaq: Seal!

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Nukaq, this is freshly caught, very fresh.

The two hunters kneel beside the seal as Argiaq uses his small bone knife to expertly slit open the abdomen and cut out a choice part he hands to Paningajak, who eats it.

Franklin: A bear brought that to us as a . . . well, a gift—don’t mention that in your observations, Holloway—readers will think we’d a bit too much to drink.

Holloway: You’d think they’d have the decency to cook it first.

Argiaq offers the tastiest bits of the seal to everyone.

Wickers: No thank you.

Argiaq: (to Franklin) Tinguk mamaqtupanaluk. [The liver is very tasty.]

Bean: Thank you, no.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) How can he resist the tastiest part!

Franklin: Perhaps later.

Carter: I’ll pass.

Paningajak: (to Argiaq) Only fools refuse the most delectable part.

Paningajak uses a wound pin on the seal to prevent more bleeding.

Holloway: What—are they going to sew up the seal? Savages, sir—right ungodly savages.

Editorial Reviews

“We’re conscious that we are witnessing a work of epic proportions.”

Jamie Portman, Capital Critics Circle

The Breathing Hole is an incredible piece of theatre that is both ground-breaking and deeply moving.”

Lauren Gienow, Broadway World

“The play and production gently invite audiences to consider relations between native people, settlers and the natural world through perspectives that are novel—perhaps even a little revolutionary...”

Karen Fricker, Toronto Star

“What War Horse did for horses, this does for bears… The bear is, in all his charm and majesty and significance, a triumph for the author's ambition and imagination.”

Robert Cushman, National Post

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